This is part of our series "Lab to Table: The Future of Our Food." Stories are airing every Monday until Dec. 17. In the spring, the series will continue with another week of stories.
Massachusetts is home to the nation's top fishing port. More than $300 million in seafood lands in New Bedford every year.
But the kinds of seafood are changing.
Rising ocean temperatures are driving southern fish species into our coastal waters. Today's there are strict catch limits on Massachusetts' state fish, the Atlantic cod. Scallops are now the New Bedford fishing industry's primary source of revenue.
In response, local researchers are developing artificial intelligence to promote smarter fishing. And private companies are working on alternatives — including bioengineered fish and even fish flesh grown in laboratories.
Capturing Your Catch On The Computer
Danny Eilertsen's scalloping boat now features a plastic ring, about 6 feet in diameter.
"Inside it, we put these cameras," he said, pausing to pull up a video clip on his smartphone.
The third-generation fisherman explained the footage was from a trip where he submerged the camera-equipped ring and dragged it through the Gulf of Maine.
"Codfish," he said, as fish flowed in and out of the ring. "Beautiful codfish."
Eilertsen's trained eye can identify fish species right away. And in a nearby lab in New Bedford, researchers led by UMass Dartmouth's Kevin Stokesbury are teaching a computer to do the same thing, using video shot from Eilertson's boat.
"It's fairly labor-intensive," Stokesbury said.
Graduate students perform the painstaking work of breaking down video, frame by frame, to tell the computer: "That's a cod," or "That's a yellowtail." Stokesbury said his team will need thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of samples of each species before the computer can reliably identify them.
"Right now, we're at the point where we can identify flatfish, roundfish and others," he said. "The program counts the fish and tracks it from image to image, to know it's the same image going through. Eventually, we hope that we can have it so it can run and count the fish in real time."
If they work, underwater cameras and artificial intelligence could help solve a longstanding problem: Because they can't see underwater, fishermen invariably catch protected species in their dragnets.
New Bedford Port Authority Executive Director Ed Washburn said this hurts the bottom line.
"You're targeting haddock, but if you catch too much cod, you have to stop fishing," he explained.
Can't fishermen just throw the cod back?
"No," Washburn said. "So, if it comes onto the deck — and there's observers [from NOAA] on board — a lot of times it's already dead. But even if it isn't, if it comes on deck, there's an assumption that it won't survive, even if you throw it back."
Those onboard observers are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which enforces catch limits. NOAA says it's interested in a smart, underwater eye because it could enhance conservation efforts.
"We've been working with [Stokesbury] for a long time, and we're going to meet with him to talk about his video trawl system," said Jon Hare, the science and research director at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center. "The developments in artificial intelligence create a range of opportunities."
Lab-Grown Fish? Too Fishy, Or Answer To Overfishing?
AI isn't the only kind of high-tech project in the works.
Maynard-based AquaBounty has genetically modified an Atlantic salmon, using genes from the larger Chinook salmon and the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The resulting fish can grow to market weight in 18 months — about half the time of a natural fish.
AquaBounty produces fish in contained tanks in Panama, where regulations are looser, and it's been selling GMO salmon in Canada for a couple of years.
Almost three decades after its founding, AquaBounty says it is close to selling its first fish in the U.S.
"We've overfished our oceans," said Chief Executive Ron Stotish. "So, as our population grows by another billion or so people in the next 20 years, how are we going to feed them? I'm not saying we're going to feed them all with salmon, but what I am saying is that we have to find a better way to meet those global, food-security needs. And I think there's a better way to meet those needs by using technology that can help us produce the foods of the future."
The company has FDA approval and an indoor farming facility ready to go in Indiana.
But to begin operations there, the company would need to import its genetically modified salmon eggs. It can't because Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, attached a ban on such imports to this year's federal spending bill.
"We refer to this GE salmon as Frankenfish," Murkowski said at a congressional hearing last year. "The valid question and concern is whether or not this fish should even be called a salmon, and there's great fear that lies with these mutated fish."
Stotish calls the senator's position "almost un-American." He says he's confident Congress will ultimately lift the ban.
If it does, AquaBounty would still face the challenge of convincing supermarkets to carry the fish — and consumers to eat it. Stotish said the company aims to win over the environmentally conscious, eat-local crowd.
"Today, the salmon are produced in cold-water regions of the world, such as the fjords of Norway or the protected coast of southern Chile," he said. "And then those fish have to be transported great distances. So this represents a tremendous opportunity to produce an environmentally sustainable product in an environmentally sustainable way, closer to the consumer."
The pitch sounds a lot like what companies developing cultured meat are saying. They're working on beef, chicken and fish assembled from cell cultures in a laboratory — no slaughter necessary.
Investors include some of the biggest names in the food industry, like Tyson and Cargill. One Israeli startup claims it's on track to lower the production cost of lab-grown beef and chicken to a point where it will be cost-competitive with the natural stuff in 2020.
Lab-grown seafood is farther behind. When a Silicon Valley startup called Finless Foods staged a small-scale tasting of lab-grown carp last year, the production cost was about $19,000 per a pound.
Ben Wurgaft, a visiting scholar at MIT, is writing a book about cultured meat. He says the promises of cultured meat sound good, but he's skeptical of what he calls the "hype machine" around the technology.
"Most cultured-meat startups may have the ultimate goal of removing things about industrial animal ag[riculture] that we all think are dangerous, unpleasant, unhealthy, morally reprehensible, unsustainable environmentally," he said. "But they also have more immediate needs, like making money."
At Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, shellfish already begin their lives in an on-shore hatchery that resembles a science lab, with tanks of florescent algae carefully analyzed to ensure they meet the baby oysters' nutritional needs.
Owner Skip Bennett says the farm will begin a partnership with UMass Boston next year, equipping a buoy with sensors to monitor water temperature and acidity.
"We know things are going to change, however that's driven, whether it's climate change or impacts of acidification," he said. "So, we really need a baseline now to understand where we are now, so that in the future we can hopefully figure out how to make adjustments to meet those changes."
Adjustments will be key to the future of Island Creek's business. But to Bennett, the future of seafood, more broadly, comes down to "whatever is caught local and is really abundant."
"Two weeks ago, I caught mackerel off our dock down here," he said. "I brought 'em home and cooked 'em, and they were just phenomenal. And then in the summer, striped bass. They've rebounded incredibly, and it's just a great resource — well-managed."
As scientists and startups invent ways for diners to keep eating familiar fish, seafood lovers also may have to learn to love whatever the new catch of the day might be.
This segment aired on December 10, 2018.