The relationship between technology and fishing is a tricky one.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. New technology has made it easier to catch fish. Much easier.
In fact, a 2019 study by the University of British Columbia found that a fleet’s capacity to catch fish doubles roughly every 35 years.
Your first instinct might simply be to say: “Well that’s it, then, technology makes us better at catching fish - nothing more to it”.
Looking at the study, however, you’ll find that, while our ability to catch fish doubles on a regular basis, we’re not actually catching twice as many every 35 years. In this piece, you’ll learn why, and be shown how technology might allow us to break through yet another barrier.
Like catching fish in a barrel
Imagine catching fish a hundred years ago. Even back then, large, commercial trawlers existed - you could, as they say, cast a wide net. The improvements in fishing we see today aren’t solely due to more effective catching methods, per se - though changes to boat architecture and how nets are rigged can improve catches.
The biggest change in fish catching? Sonar technology.
Back in the day, you’d have to rely on less-than-stellar evidence to figure out where to cast your net. You’d have some idea of where fish liked to congregate - there were maps, old sailors with a lot of experience, and other historical data you could use to guess, with some degree of accuracy, where fish could be found.
Nowadays, sonar has made it really easy to figure out where fish are - we basically have all-seeing eyes under the water. This technology has become so affordable that you can find fish finders at a consumer-level - check out Fish Finder Reviews 2021 for more knowledge about what those look like.
As you can imagine, if underwater imaging is available to consumers for $1000 or less, the acoustic cameras and fish finders on commercial fishing vessels are going to be a far bit better. The days of crossing your fingers and praying for fish are long gone - today, commercial fisheries have no problem finding and catching all the fish they want.
Why, then, has the amount of fish we’re catching stayed relatively consistent despite obvious technological improvements?
The perils of overfishing
Back in the 1950s, it felt like Atlantic Canada had an almost unlimited supply of cod. In 1992, the country effectively shut down cod fishing - 30,000 people became unemployed almost overnight.
Fish are a renewable resource - they renew themselves - but if you fish too many, their numbers start to dwindle because they can’t reproduce faster than they’re being fished. There’s a serious disadvantage, then, to be able to catch more fish - the more you catch, the less supply you have, and the less supply you have, the harder it is to catch fish.
That’s why, even though a given fleet’s capacity to catch fish doubles every 35 years, the amount of fish caught does not - there’s simply less supply.
Technology to the rescue
There is, then, a special kind of game being played in the fishery world - quotas are established in order to prevent overfishing and ensure sufficient breeding stock.
This means data management is absolutely essential to fisheries, and if you’re reading this, it’s safe to say you know that data management is something best left to computers. Excel was basically the killer app for modern PCs - why wouldn’t something similar be the case for fisheries?
The propositions for leveraging cutting-edge technologies to improve the monitoring of fish stocks are incredible. OECD created an inventory of new technology in fisheries, and it is astounding: Underwater drones in order to monitor fish stocks. At-sea weighing systems to allow fishers to determine how much stock they’ve harvested. Some are even proposing a universally applied blockchain system so that fish stocks can continuously be monitored and validated in a trustless environment.
We can expect these types of technologies to make an impact on sustainable fishing as they become both more precise and less expensive. All of this data will be sent back to fishery monitoring centres, where it can be processed and sent to stakeholders to ensure that stock never dwindles below the point at which it can be recovered. As time goes on, and we gather more data, we can expect to find quotas that perfectly balance how much we can fish and how much supply we have.
Fishing is one of the best ways of feeding the world because if we can keep the supply of fish abundant, they’re incredibly renewable. We look forward to seeing how technology will continue to advance industrial fishing - and humanity.