Sealord to market high-tech 'fish cam'

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014

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Fishing giant Sealord plans to get into the technology business by commercialising a camera and sonar array it hopes will deliver a double-digit percentage increase in trawling efficiency.

The system lets skippers observe fish, identify their species and see whether and how they were trying to evade the net 30-to-40 metres ahead of their trawling nets, even at depths of up to nearly a kilometre.

That meant fishing fleets could catch their quotas using fewer trips and less fuel, chief executive Graham Stuart said.

Sealord expected to sell the system to other fishing companies around the world, as well as using it itself, he said. It was developed last year at a cost of $700,000 in partnership with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Stuart expected such systems would become "standard technology" within 10 years but said Sealord was "probably just in front of the pack".

The array needed its own lighting system and power pack and had to be incredibly robust to withstand 80 to 90 bars of atmospheric pressure, but Stuart said it would become much more affordable, the more it was deployed.

The cameras on the array had given Sealord fresh insights into how different species behaved when confronted by a trawler, he said.

"A lot of the fish we catch we'd never seen swimming before. For the first time we can understand how they react when the net comes along.

"The assumption has been that when fish see a net they go straight to the bottom of the sea, but that is not always the case."

The technology means that even commercial fisherman may soon spend much of their working day staring at a computer screen.

The array has not yet been used in "real time" to fish. But Stuart said Sealord's next step would be to attach it via fibre-optic cable to the fishing vessel Aukaha next month, so its captain would be able to fish while watching fish and the boat's net live on screen.

The technology had environmental spin-offs, Stuart said. It could help trawlers avoid scraping the seabed with their nets.

It was also not necessarily a bad development for fish as catches were set by quotas, Stuart said. "It means we can catch the same amount of fish with less effort."

But footage from the cameras could prove there were more fish in the sea than had been measured using conventional sonar surveys, and that could lead to high quotas, he said.

That had shown to be the case with orange roughy, he said.

"When we put cameras and acoustic surveys together we find populations of fish are larger than we thought they were - they hear the boat coming and swim somewhere else.

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We should be able to give the public greater confidence that what we do is sustainable."

Sealord booked a $44m annual loss last year, as a result of the poor performance and subsequent sale of its Yuken subsidiary in Argentina.

Stuart said selling the subsidiary had been an "ugly pill to swallow", but Sealord would make a profit and pay a dividend this year.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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