When customers of the fisheries company Sanriku Toretate Ichiba want to shop for fish, they connect to the net. The firm, based in Sanriku town in Japan's Iwate prefecture, posts details of its catches online in real time, offering consumers the chance to buy fish almost as soon as it is hauled from the sea. This could help make fishing more sustainable by matching supply and demand, says the entrepreneur behind the firm – though others are unconvinced.
Kenichiro Yagi set up his online fisheries company in 2010. Events since then have made the move seem prescient. Sanriku was devastated by last year's tsunami. Iwate lost 108 of its 111 ports and over 9000 fishing vessels, leaving fishermen without the tools to catch fish or a place to sell it.
Total financial losses for the agriculture and fisheries industries as a result of the tsunami are estimated at ¥2 trillion ($26 billion), according to Tetsuo Morimoto, parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
"Real recovery in the region cannot be achieved without recovery of the food industry," he told Japan's annual Food Industry Summit in Sendai, one of the regions affected by the tsunami, last November. "We will do whatever we can to rehabilitate the food industry in the region."
Boats with webcams
Yagi decided not to wait for government help. Within a month of the disaster his company was trading again. His team managed to salvage four boats and equipped them with webcams and laptop computers, for the purpose of putting details of catches online.
The approach has helped Yagi restart operations and enabled fishermen to get around the lack of a physical marketplace. Beyond that, Yagi says it could allow his crews to better match what they catch to consumers' needs, reducing waste.
"The hard reality is most caught produce goes to waste and in extreme cases this results in fishermen increasing their catch to compensate for lost revenues," Yagi says. "It's a vicious circle that has gone on for a long time, but I think it can be countered by a reliable monitoring system, which this effectively is."
The system could also allow unwanted fish to be identified quickly enough to be returned to the sea alive, benefiting marine ecosystems.
Whether the fishing industry in general could adopt similar practices is less clear. Doing so on large trawlers that catch thousands of fish each trip might require an automated system to quickly categorise the catch.
Computer vision software could help. In 2008 Tilo Burghardt at the University of Bristol, UK, developed software to identify African penguins based on each individual's unique plumage pattern. Fish scales may provide a similar visual fingerprint to identify species, he says – although he adds that the application of computer vision to animal recognition is in its embryonic stages.
Even if it proves possible to automatically categorise unwanted fish quickly enough to return them to the seas, Blake Lee-Harwood of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a non-profit body, has his doubts about the benefits for sustainability. "In the case of trawlers, there is a lethal process where caught fish get squashed together in the nets." Most of what is thrown back is thus dead, he says.
Other industry observers believe that the convenience of an online market could result in more demand for fish – bad news for already dwindling fish stocks. "More harm than good could result without an effort on the fishermen's behalf to improve consumer awareness," says Jun Morikawa at Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo.
Yagi, however, believes that providing a live feed from the boats will, in fact, boost consumer awareness. "Our objective is to form a connection between fishermen and consumers."
Japan is home to 2 per cent of the world's population but consumes around 10 per cent of the world's catch. Depleted stocks means that today around half of Japan's catch is imported.
But as in other wealthy countries, sustainability of supply is not necessarily a focus for shoppers. Only three of the top 10 supermarket chains in Japan sell sustainably caught produce, and the range is limited.
The live fishing feeds may help buck the trend. "It is precisely because of the anonymity of fisheries workers that the world's oceans are overfished," says Yagi. "By placing them centre stage we have the opportunity to relay the need to protect marine resources – and at the same time create a new kind of market."
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