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DUBAI: Dutch academics and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have launched a vital new project that uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to improve the identification and measurement of species and stocks of fish in the Nile basin.

It could become a key tool in the quest for sustainability and food security by improving the collection of vital data from fishing communities in the region.

The initiative, supported by Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, is the latest development in a decades-long effort launched in the 1970s by FAO to help countries better identify species for fishing, so that the collection of data on fish catches can be increased and the fishing industry improved.

A fisherman on the Nile catches a tilapia. The river basin is the site of a new system using AI to track fish stocks, below, which it is hoped will improve the sustainability of fishing in the area. (AFP)

“It helps people understand long-term trends of what’s happening with fishing over time,” said Kim Friedman, fisheries resources officer at FAO. “The initial push was mainly to do species identification guides and most of them were done with museums around the world, so a country could take a guide and know exactly what species it was. But then we started making posters and pocket guides for people to carry around in boats.”

The tools have evolved with critical new work, backed by artificial intelligence, that could transform ocean conservation efforts that are badly needed as many fish species around the world are in decline.

Once a very expensive and time-consuming process carried out by observers aboard vessels, species tracking using state-of-the-art technology can now be so detailed that the data can even identify the freshness of fish.

The Nile tilapia is one of the most popular farmed freshwater fish in the world. (FAO photo)

Edwin van Helmond, a fisheries researcher at Wageningen Marine Research, part of WUR, said the potential for using AI and other technologies to support fisheries management is huge.

“The fact that detailed catch information can be collected via algorithms, without the presence of experts, makes data collection available in remote areas,” he told Arab News. “The data can be sent or collected at a later stage or directly stored in a data cloud and made remotely available to experts.”

He believes that this technology will also greatly benefit long-term food security, which is a major challenge for the Gulf region, as well as the sustainable management of natural resources, which begins with the collection of sufficient data.

The FAO is testing algorithms capable of calculating sustainable harvest quantities without the risk of overexploitation. (Photo credit: FAO)

“To be able to do a good assessment of the available resources, in this case local fish stocks, you need good data,” he said. “This includes detailed catch information by species, catch weight and length frequencies.

“These variables are the input data to any stock assessment model, and with these models you can calculate sustainable harvest quantities without the risk of overexploitation, which equates to sustainable management of local fish stocks and long-term food security”.

The FAO is now trying to make the technology more accessible so that more people in the industry can benefit from it, which in turn will help the organization expand its datasets. Complete information about each species would be used to create algorithms that can identify species and their locations and recognize any changes.

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Once these algorithms are developed, an app will allow users to search for specific species using images that can unlock information such as species characteristics, food values ​​and other fishing-related data.

“In the future, anyone, even a fisherman, could take pictures of their catch, send them in, get species identification, and potentially also some measurements like the size of the fish,” possibly expanding a portfolio of trends in the waters. in which they work, Helmond said.

The Nile Basin project, which will last three to five years, will also look at some national requirements in terms of languages, reporting and ensuring that datasets meet desired levels of security.

So far e. The system mirrors recreational fishing identification efforts in European rivers and lakes, where communities fund systems that can identify catches and develop appropriate codes of practice between them.

Technological advances should play a leading role in promoting sustainable fisheries and aquaculture and ensuring their growth. (A file photo)

“It then helps to understand how well different river or lake systems are doing and which ones may need to be augmented with hatchery-reared fish,” Friedman said.

“It allows people to connect with others who might not have connected in the past.”

The key to success will be data collection by as many stakeholders as possible, Friedman said. The resulting benefits for everyone involved will be the best possible algorithms.

“We also have the possibility of starting to collect images around the Nile to tell people that they can catch this type of fish of the right size and in good condition in a specific place,” he added. “So (it addresses) sustainability issues and also looking for market opportunities.”

The Global Fishing Watch platform, a collaboration between Google, nonprofit digital environmental mapping organization SkyTruth and conservation organization Oceana, was one of the first attempts to combine AI with satellite data to observe fishing activity.

Google, along with nonprofit digital environmental mapping organization SkyTruth and conservation organization Oceana, are working on an AI project to combine surveys with satellite data to observe fishing activity around the world. . (Global Fisheries Observation)

The technology also offers hope for efforts to address dwindling freshwater resources in the region, which has some of the lowest levels of freshwater in the world, mostly in the form of undisclosed underground stores. renewable. Freshwater supplies have fallen by 60% over the past four decades, according to the FAO, and what remains is expected to decline by 50% by 2050.

Technological advancements are expected to play a leading role in shaping international policies to promote and grow sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, with artificial intelligence helping to address what is now a global environmental concern. The data collected will allow fish and seafood retailers and customers to know if what they are selling and consuming is sustainable.

Innovation is also key to making agriculture and the entire agri-food value chain more attractive, creating business and employment opportunities and helping the region achieve food security, sustainable agriculture and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Technological advances should play a leading role in promoting sustainable fisheries and aquaculture and ensuring their growth. (A file photo)

FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu believes the latest collaborative project is an essential step towards achieving this.

“A focused and strengthened framework between FAO and Wageningen University and Research will enable our partnership to better align efforts and resources for greater impact in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals” , did he declare.

In addition to the Nile project, FAO and WUR are collaborating on several other initiatives related to the sustainable development of fisheries and aquaculture value chains.

In African, Caribbean and Pacific states, for example, a joint project called FISH4ACP provides expertise on multi-stakeholder partnerships that contribute to food security and improved nutrition, prosperity and creative jobs.

Just last month, Saudi authorities, which are responsible for 49% of aquaculture in the Gulf, announced they were working to establish a regional fisheries center as part of broader goals. aimed at diversifying the national economy and ensuring food security.

Saudi Arabia is responsible for 49 percent of the Gulf region’s aquaculture industry. (Provided)

Friedman said such initiatives have the potential to spread quickly across the region and beyond.

“If we look back in time, all the regional guides that were put in place to understand fishing started in certain regions and are now global,” he said.

“I suspect the same will happen not just for the Nile, but for coastal fishing, pelagic (deep sea) fishing and so on, depending on the opportunities that AI presents to us.”

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