Fish farmers see 100% upside in production

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Sven Jørund Kolstø

CEO at OptoScale – Data insights for sustainable aquaculture. We are growing and hiring – join us!

At OptoScale, we are constantly wanting to understand how to help our customers more effectively. Rather than trying to predict the future myself, we decided to use the wisdom of crowds to help us – in this case, many of the greatest people in the universe, namely users of OptoScale.

What follows below is a synopsis of the survey results we received. It includes what we learned about the future needs of fish farming personnel, their perceptions of these changes that are needed, and also current trends in fish farming innovation. It certainly helps us assess if we are on the right path so I hope you also find it interesting. 

TL;DR (Too long; Did not read)

If the full post below is too long for you, here are the key takeaways:

  • Fish farmers report to be spending a very large proportion of their time gathering data about their fish.
  • Fish farmers really want to spend less time manually sampling their fish, which is typically how data is gathered today.
  • Fish farmers believe we can see an almost 100% productivity increase before we are at the “perfect production cycle”.

If you do read the whole post, I would love to discuss it further with any interested soul. We are committed to relieving fish farmers of the manual hassle of sampling their fish, so if you’re a fish farmer, you better call sales!

Method

Reader beware: This was an informal undertaking. We created identical surveys in Norwegian and English and sent them to OptoScale’s users in Scotland, Canada and Norway. We received 24 responses (13 Norwegian-speaking and 11 English-speaking). The data set is not huge, but large enough to give some interesting information.  

Who did we ask?

The respondent profile was very similar for both languages – i.e. mostly site leads (Norwegian: Driftsleder). If there were any differences between the Norwegian and English responses, I’ll note it below. Thanks to everyone who responded to the survey if you’re reading here.

Question 1:

Claim: My time at work is only spent doing work that is very valuable. How much do you agree/disagree with this?

(Respondents could answer from 1-5. 5 is high.

English average: 4.09 / 5

Norwegian average: 3.92 / 5

Why did we ask this? Well, it is interesting to get a feel for what the every day of fish farmers feels like. Is it a grind where you feel like a hamster in a wheel? Our numbers suggest otherwise: A score of approximately 4/5 indicates that most of the work done is experienced as helping the whole – which is great!

Question 2:

Do you at all times have overview of information important for you to be able to make correct decisions in your operation?

(Respondents could answer from 1-5. 5 is high.

English average: 3.91 / 5

Norwegian average: 4.0 / 5

This is one of the more directly interesting questions to us at OptoScale, because our vision is to bring objective data to fish farmers, in order to help improve productivity, welfare, and sustainability. The score here is quite high, indicating there is not a large unmet need for providing better data, among existing users of OptoScale measurement systems. One way to interpret the results here is that our users are quite happy with the data they are receiving from us. It would be very interesting to see how fish farmers without access to our equipment answered this question

Question 3:

Can you estimate how much of your time (%) is spent gathering info about the fish, e.g. welfare, weight, lice count, etc..

English average: 45%

Norwegian average: 49%

The latest figure I could find about employees in the fish farming industry is from 2016, and at that time there were 8000 employed in the industry in little Norway alone (Norwegian site: ssb). If we could reduce the time these men and women use to gather info down to 5% of their total time – which should be possible with automated systems such as ours, that would amount to approximately 1 billion euros saved in working hours.

Of course that time could also be spent doing other more productive things instead, for instance trying to figure out how to improve their overall performance, rather than what the current status of the fish is. This is our clearest vision for how fish farming work hours are spent in the future: less time figuring out what the status of the fish is, a lot more time optimising production and welfare given what the conditions actually are.

Question 4:

Looking 10 years into the future, what do you hope to spend less time doing (in the same job)

With this question I wanted to understand which aspects of people’s current jobs might be possible to actually improve over the decade. The answers were in text form (and optional to answer). I have tried to systemise the answers, indicating the frequency a type of answer has. I only included answers with two or more similar responses. As can be seen, there is no competition for the manual sampling of fish. If only there were a company that could help these people automatically measure their fish! 😉

Question 5:

Looking 10 years into the future, what do you hope to spend more time doing (in the same job)

Since we first focused on what was interesting to spend less time on, I also wanted to understand where people want their focus to lie in the future. The apparent result is that people want to spend more time on analysing data and developing people. The answer “the fish” came only from Norwegian respondents, and should be understood via that being a customary saying among fish farmers – “we want to spend more time on the fish”, implying of course improving growth and welfare conditions.

Question 6:

How close to a “perfect production” do you think we are today?

English average: 51%

Norwegian average: 57%

This is an interesting one. Of course, it’s very informal and just a sampling of the fish farm market – but I was curious about what the people working with this every day believe about their own industry’s performance and potential for improvement. I was expecting a much higher number here, it could easily have been the case that you feel like “well it can’t get that much better, we are basically pushing the limits as is”.

This result echoes the very reason why I love working in this industry: there is still a lot of development to do, and there is interest from the industry to get this improvement happening!

Question 7: What type of information do you miss the most, and that you think could make the biggest difference for improving operations if you had it?

Respondents could tick boxes or add their own suggestions. Multiple selections were allowed.

English and Norwegian responses basically mirror each other in this one.

As the CEO of the company that provides the world’s best system for estimating the weight of the fish in the sea, you know this figure pleases me – and I promise I did not fiddle with the data! A necessary caveat is that information about oxygen and such is probably not at all as uninteresting as this figure conveys, it’s just that this is already relatively available information for the fish farmers.

This was the last question in the questionnaire of general interest. The rest focused on how we at OptoScale can continue to evolve in line with customer expectations, and we got some good feedback on this as well. (My favourite response was from a Norwegian respondent, who answered that we need to make sure they get one sensor in each pen – we’re on the same team, buddy!)

Summary and discussion

Have we learned anything from this? Well, I would certainly welcome some more exhaustive research into the subject, so in case there are any interested academics reading this, please get in touch if you would like to work with us on that.

There are a hundred ways to criticise the data, and I trust my wife (who is a Ph.D. and actually knows how research should be done!) to tell me also, but there are still some very interesting things here:

  • Fish farmers seem to be spending an enormous amount of their time on gathering data. We know that the quality of this data is not always great either.
  • Almost everything that English speaking respondents (in Canada and Scotland) answered was mirrored by their Norwegian counterparts. I was expecting to find more differences (so no confirmation bias either!) but it seems things are not so different when it comes to the matters at hand across the world.
  • Fish farmers really want to spend less time on manually sampling their fish.
  • There is a substantial consciousness about getting better quality data in order to improve production.
  • Fish farmers believe we can see an almost 100% performance increase before we are at the “perfect production cycle” – whatever that term means to the individual.
  • There is a logical fallacy in that the answer for Question 2 indicated not a large need for better data, since they already give a 4/5 score for this question. At the same time, the most important parameters to improve in the future is answered to be such data. (Clearly, more research is needed!)

Is innovation keeping up with industry needs?

This is quite difficult to answer, but there is a huge shift in the mindset of fish farmers when related to data. Today, very many fish farmers have a clear understanding of the importance of data for improving production in the future. The experience-driven fish farmer is not being thrown out the window, but she is being given new tools to guide her in the difficult work it is to decide what is best for the fish.

So what’s needed to become more data-driven? Well first, high quality data of course, and this was the reason I started OptoScale almost 7 years ago. We have now come a very long way in providing fish farmers with high quality data that they trust. The last part is crucial, as we are not at all the first to try, but I will venture to say we are among the first to really succeed at building this trust. Our #1 company value is: the job is not done until the customer is satisfied.

Data in itself is worthless – only when the data becomes information that changes some decision into a better one will it have value. This means the data must be used by people making decisions. This is what we are working on now. We are sharing our data freely according to the customer’s wish (it’s their data!). This means that we make available the data in the platforms where customers are making decisions.

In terms of innovation, there are many strong contenders for being the data platform for fish farmers. One I would highlight being Clarify, which is aimed at making sure people can collaborate around data, a vision I increasingly understand the value of.

In sum, I think most industries get the innovative suppliers they deserve. Without saying too much about the past, there seems to be a lot happening these days which is very positive. The one key thing I find many fish farmers do not appreciate is that innovation takes time, is messy, and is not something you ask for and get the same day.

SalMar provided OptoScale with early funding 6 years ago – for which we are forever thankful. Today, they are starting to reap the rewards of that “investment”, by us being able to deliver valuable data to them. I wish it could move much faster, I really do, but realistically just embrace the fact that all things that involve hardware, software and biology will take time.

Conclusion and acknowledgments

First, if you are reading this and contributed to the survey – thanks! We are on a mission to hopefully improve your data quality and ease your work of gathering it.

This has been a test at writing about insights we gain at OptoScale. I would tremendously appreciate any comment or feedback there might be. We are doing this to spread awareness about the potential for fish farming, and of course about us being one part of this industry’s great future.

Rounding off, I hope everyone has a great pre-Christmas, and I would strongly suggest listening to the OptoScale themesong while preparing for Christmas.

Sven

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