7 December 2011

IT – making a difference in aquaculture

By Brian Loh Chung Shiong

Information technology has often been utilized to solve numerous problems. But while we commonly hear of its application in telecommunication, manufacturing, transport, and banking industries, its use in fish aquaculture is rarely heard of.

The global demand for fish is expected to outpace other food sources such as livestock. Due to the increasing demand for fish, the global market for aquaculture software and equipment is expected to exceed US$80 billion by 2014.

The Asia-Pacific region is projected to account for over 80% of the global demand for aquaculture software by 2014. It represents one of the most important regions for fisheries and aquaculture production as it contributes large amounts of highly traded commodities. As fish farming expands around the world, the need for commercial grade feeds, chemicals, and biological enhancements as well as mechanizations on fish farms become a necessity.

According to the Department of Fisheries of Malaysia, the market value of marine fishes have increased significantly from 2000 (RM4 billion) to 2009 (RM6 billion) with a growth rate of around 50%. Furthermore, based on the 10th Malaysia Plan, high value agriculture activities including aquaculture will be one of the main focuses. The government intends to introduce modern technology to improve production processes as well as intensify research and development in hopes to create new high-value added products.

This gives reason to the design and development of aquaculture solutions coupled with information technology. Several points support the need for aquaculture tool kits that employ both hardware and software components. First of all, the market value of fish has been rising and the upward spiral is expected to continue. This ensures a steady need for aquaculture products. Secondly, focus has been given to utilizing new technologies in improving fish production. A tool kit capable of improving aquaculture processes such as fish counting and monitoring can be considered a valuable contribution. Thirdly, research and development is required in order to employ new techniques as well as understanding fish growth which can lead to increased production. The knowledge acquired from applying improved aquaculture solutions can be used to study fish growth, therefore allowing better treatment of fish which in turn leads to improved fish quality.

One particular subject of interest in aquaculture research is the counting and monitoring of fish. Newly hatched fish, or larvae, and juvenile fish, are usually counted manually. This leads to poor accuracy rates and high margins of error in determining the total fish population. Furthermore, fish growth information is not properly collected or maintained during the sampling process. Consequently, results obtained for research may suffer due to inaccurate or insufficient information.

However, several companies have introduced fish detection technologies into the market. Vaki, an Icelandic company, allows for fish counting through optical measuring equipment such as a light valve. A light valve contains two rows of sensors, with one side acting as a transmitter and the other as receiver. When a fish passes through the counter, light from the transmitter is blocked from the receiver, therefore indicating that a fish is present. The outline of the fish can then be detected, which provides information on fish length and size.

Another company, Sound Metrics, provides dual-frequency identification sonar, or DIDSON in short, that detects fish through sound waves. The DIDSON is an acoustic underwater camera that transmits and receives ultrasonic sound waves to count, track and estimate the length of fish. High quality images are created from the received sound waves, which allow information to be easily interpreted.

Both the Vaki fish counter and Sound Metrics’ DIDSON aim to detect and monitor fish through hardware solutions. On the other hand, the AKVA group with its Fishtalk software allows its users to manage various fish farming processes ranging from growth monitoring to harvesting and trading of fish. Important aquaculture information is stored in the program which is capable of generating essential reports for proper management of fish production.

The demand for and application of IT continues to increase throughout a range of industries including aquaculture. A bright future awaits IT specialists who intend to pursue this path. Therefore, continual development of human capital in this highly demanded field is required for future needs.

Brian Loh Chung Shiong is a full-time Masters student at Swinburne Sarawak. He is currently working on data privacy and data mining research with the Advanced Informatics Consultancy and Research Group at Swinburne Sarawak. He may be contacted at bloh@swinburne.edu.my