Tuesday, 12 October 2021 15:16

North Atlantic Seafood Forum goes digital

NASFSharing insights on business, innovation, market initiatives, and sustainability

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 5 2021

More than 1500 delegates from the seafood industry attended the North Atlantic Seafood Forum held 8–10 June. The 16th edition of the conference, convened in Bergen, Norway, hosted presentations by more than 160 speakers from 16 countries. Presentations by scientists, industry experts, policy-makers, and CEOs from the global aquatic food industry (wild-caught and aquaculture) addressed common industry challenges, including consumer and market developments, seafood supply, sustainability, innovation, and finance, among other topics.


The conference, which has been billed as the world’s largest seafood business conference, was hosted by the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) and other partners. This year, it was entirely digital owing to Covid restrictions, but this limitation actually allowed more people to take part, up from approximately 800 the year before. Delegates were able to join sessions through a digital conference platform and replay sessions later. Messaging functions, one-to-one video-meetings, and a meet-and-greet function allowed delegates to reach out to other delegates and companies.

Sessions included, among other topics, “Aquaculture and salmon: future production methods of cultured salmon,” “Shrimp seminar,” and “Sustainability seminar”. During the “Ocean Science Day 2” session, which focused on sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, six speakers gave keynote addresses, from the perspective of industry, management, and research.

How to define “sustainability”?

The need for sustainable fisheries is universally accepted, but the definitions of sustainability often differ greatly. The usual ecological aspects (productivity and trophic structure, biodiversity, and habitat–ecosystem integrity) are part of almost every definition. Nevertheless, they overlook such aspects as the socioeconomic (viability and prosperity, sustainable livelihoods, distribution of access and benefits, regional–community benefits), social (health and well-being, sustainable communities, ethical fisheries), and institutional (legal obligations, good governance structure, effective decision-making).

Mark Dickey-Collas, Chair of ICES Advisory Committee, pointed to these various aspects (taken from a paper by Robert L. Stephenson and others (2018)) as he answered the question, “What is a sustainable fishery?” from ICES point of view. He defined four measures to determine a sustainable fishery: (1) the fishery’s ability to support fish production; (2) its ability to maintain a sustainable impact on the marine ecosystem; (3) its ability to meet the social and economic aspiration of the fishers; and (4) sustainability in other contexts. Additionally, he pointed out that some countries have increased the objective of stemming biodiversity loss to actually improving biodiversity. He cited Kevern Cochran who has written that sustainability is only attainable by meeting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals in an “integrated and indivisible manner”. On the positive side, and very generally, he reported that all ICES stocks in the period 1997–2019, without weighting for catch or size, have shown improving trends in meeting the sustainability targets and increasing the biomass of stocks.

Conversely, it has been shown that fishing at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) does not achieve its objective of sustaining ecosystem health. Fishing at MSY negatively affects the ability to achieve conservation and biodiversity targets, and it results in a loss of fish community biomass and a 40% risk of collapsed species. From the perspective of the social and economic impacts, fishing at MSY does not benefit most fishers worldwide. The wages of average of fishers in the majority of countries (69%–95% of fishers worldwide) probably receive a wage below their nationally determined minimum living wage. Even if all fisheries in every country were managed to achieve their MSY, average incomes of 70% of fishers worldwide would still not meet minimum living wages.

Licence to fish—political ramifications

To the many components that must be considered in defining sustainability, he added the idea of political sustainability. For example, who has the right to fish where? He pointed to the current political notion that “big is bad”, referring to vessels and companies, and explained that their political acceptance often depends on how the public perceive them and how politicians use these perceptions to shape the debate.

Specifically, he mentioned the case of the pulse trawl, which uses electricity to shock fish out of the seabed. It was developed by, among others, the Dutch fishers to deal with shrimps and other organisms. Its use has been banned in the EU for political reasons. But when ICES investigated, they concluded that pulse trawling reduces environmental impacts on sole, plaice, cod, dogfish, and invertebrates on the seabed, reduces fuel consumption and CO2 production, and minimises seabed disturbance and the effect on sensitive species and habitats.

Its use has been banned in the EU for political reasons.

In conclusion, he quoted Kristin N. Marshall and Phillip S. Levin from the 2018 book Effective Conservation Science to which they contributed. “Certainly, notions of sustainability are tangled with human values, and therefore, will vary among regions and through time. … Ultimately, truly sustainable fisheries are defined by a dialogue that gives voice to diverse values, and governance that fairly and equitably considers those values”.

Researching mesopelagic resources in South Africa

Janet Coetzee, from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, South Africa, has had extensive experience with research on pelagic and mesopelagic species in the region. She reported on research that has been done on mesopelagic resources in the southern Benguela Current, which flows north off the coast of southwestern Africa. Its nutrient-rich waters ensure an abundance of marine life; landings in South Africa from the ecosystem amount to approximately 600,000 tonnes annually. A trawl experiment was undertaken in 2010 to 2011, and was resumed in 2017 to 2019, to determine if mesopelagic fish can stand alone as a viable alternative fishery. Small mesopelagic fish have not been a targeted species in recent decades and are now only taken as bycatch.

Small mesopelagic fish, which inhabit depths of about 200–1000 metres, play a very important role in that ecosystem, where they occupy a mid-level position in the food web and play an important role in the transfer of energy from higher trophic levels to lower trophic levels. Further, approximately 50% of mesopelagic species are consumed by the Cape hake, the area’s most valuable fishery, so any exploitation of mesopelagic species must be carefully calculated.

Models give counter intuitive results

Modelling work by Len Shannon at the University of Cape Town sug­gested that increasing the fishing pressure on mesopelagics to FMSY levels of about 0.33 increases the abundance of seabirds and most demersal fish species, including the important Cape hake. It also increases the abundance of impor­tant small pelagic fish species including sardine and anchovy, and rarely reduces biomasses in mesopelagic fisheries. This is probably because increasing fishing pressure lessens predation pressure or competition for zooplank­ton prey resources.

In 2011, an exploratory fishery was opened to determine the viability of expanding the scope of fishing small pelagics using midwater or pelagic trawlers. This met with limited success, but it turned out that it was pos­sible to effectively catch mesopelagic fish species, in particular lantern fish species, with the pelagic trawl method. Between 2017 and 2019, the catches were variable—the volume of fish landed as well as the catch rate, which could be as high as more than 70 tonnes per hour, but could also be less than 10 tonnes per hour. It became obvious that, to maintain the quality of the fish, trips had to be of a very short duration, ranging from 2 to 4 hours and not farther than
30 to 60 miles from port. Most of the fishing was done during the day, when the fish were deeper in the water column and aggregating at higher densities. The optimal trawl speed was determined to be 2.5 to 3 knots. Owing to substantial seasonal migration, most of the catches were taken in summer and autumn, with the fish moving out of the preferred fishing area during winter.

It emerged that the codend design is key. Large meshes allow better flow through the trawl, but they also allow the small mesopelagics to escape, requiring a much smaller codend mesh to counter the backpressure that builds up in the trawl. Overall catch rates were too low for this operation to be a viable fishery. But perhaps similar efforts will benefit from these experiences, which highlighted the need for fishing close to port and the development of more efficient trawl systems. In areas where mesopelagic fish might be exploited, it is obviously vital that the important trophic role of the species be considered.

Improving fish capture equipment

Maria Tenningen, a fisheries researcher at Norway’s IMR, presented “Innovations in sustainable fisheries technology”, a review of developments in fish capture technology. She emphasised that the developments depended on a combination of new technologies, knowledge of fish behaviour, and the current focus on sustainable fisheries. She identified some of the challenges with current capture methods: bycatch and discards, overfishing, habitat disruption, and CO2 emissions. Fishing gears and methods must be selected for the size of the target species, and they must control catch quantity to meet the fishing gear and vessel capacity. These measures will maintain catch quality and reduce environmental impact.

She presented examples of innovations, which can be divided into three groups: Pre-catch 1–2, Early catch 2–4, and Gear modifi­cation 4–6. In pre-catch, the target fish are identified before the fishing gear is deployed, using acoustic methods to estimate school size and fish size and species. In early catch, fish are identified as they enter the fishing gear. In gear modifications, unwanted catch is released from the gear, catch size is limited, and bottom contact in trawling is reduced. The six concepts, except for number five, were developed, at least partly, under the Center for Research-based Innovation for Sustainable Fisheries. The programme ran for eight years, ending in 2019, and was financed by the Research Council of Norway.

Careful about whom you let in

Pre-catch 1: In addition to locating schools of fish, it is important to estimate the fish school size before it is caught, to prevent large catches from bursting gears and overwhelming the available on-board space. Researchers at IMR have developed algorithms to calculate the size of schools and have made these algorithms available to sonar producers.

Pre-catch 2: Now, it is possible to resolve the size and species of individual targets using broadband echo sounders and narrow acoustic beams, which can be placed on the boat or the fish­ing gear. IMR now coordinates the Center for Research-based Innovation in Marine Acoustic Abundance and Backscatter Classification (CRIMAC), whose main focus is on using broadband and acoustics in fishery science.

Early catch 3: Scantrol Deep Vision is a subsea, stereo-camera vision system that identifies and measures fish in the sea without bringing the catch on board the vessel. It is placed in front of the codend of a trawl, recording fish as they pass, making it possible to count the fish entering the trawl and obtain a species size distribution. The system is currently being used in IMR surveys. Automatic image analysis that uses massive machine learning methods is currently being developed and tested. The control division is also working with an active selection system, which uses doors that can be opened and closed.

Gear modification 4: In purse seine fisheries, it is desirable to have information about the fish in the net at an early catch stage, if that information cannot be gathered in the pre-catch phase. A stereo-camera probe can be deployed in the net. Work has been done attaching sensors to the net as well as flying drums with echo sounders. Gentle release methods have been developed using a large opening in the purse seine so that the fish can freely exit the net, so improving survival.

Refining fishing gear

Gear modification 5: As the codend fills, it expands to a accommodate a predetermined volume of fish. Then the codend closes. At the same time, the top of the seine opens, allowing fish to exit. In addition, a release mechanism opens the net, allowing the volume to increase.

Gear modification 6: The final example is reducing bottom contact in a demersal trawl, so called semi-pelagic trawling, where the trawl doors and sweeps are lifted off the seabed while keeping the trawl on the seabed using these manoeuvrable trawl doors that have hatches that can be opened and closed. This allows adjustment of the distance from the doors to the seabed. But catch rates of cod and haddock declined, probably the result of the doors and sweeps discouraging the herding stimuli. However, catches improved when cod schooled off the seabed. In some situations, this can be a very good solution to reducing bottom contact.

The 17th North Atlantic Seafood Forum will be held 8–10 March 2022. The event will combine both a digital and a physical conference, allowing delegates to participate either digitally or in Bergen in person.

William Anthony