Maximizing benefits: considerations for oceans technology applications 

By EDF Oceans

By Trudie Grattan and Melissa Mahoney

When you hear the phrase “oceans technology,” what comes to mind? Do you picture a futuristic device that’s cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch? Smart cameras to see a fishing vessel’s activity, fishing location and more? How about drones or autonomous underwater vehicles gathering oceanographic data previously thought unattainable? Even the most ubiquitous of tech devices — smartphones and apps — are increasingly used by small-scale fishers all over the world to record and legitimize their catch.

To ensure the application of oceans technology is equitable and sustainable, we must consider the potential environmental and social impacts

It is no secret that fisheries are making leaps and bounds in the digital revolution, with new and emerging technologies offering greater opportunities to ensure fisheries are sustainable and productive for generations to come. The potential of oceans technology is only growing.

But technologies can also bring costs, and many of these are not well understood. To ensure the application of oceans technology is equitable and sustainable, we must consider the potential environmental and social impacts, including those from production, end-of-life phase and applications across diverse communities. In doing so, people can take steps to mitigate these impacts throughout the design and implementation process, resulting in greater net benefits for fishers and coastal communities.

Technology production

The manufacturing and production of technologies like smartphones and electronic monitoring systems — which are composed of hard drives, GPS, cameras and more — requires significant energy and resources. The manufacturing processes are largely powered by fossil fuels, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that pollute our air, warm ocean waters, alter currents and disrupt fisheries. The production of these technologies also relies on valuable, finite materials including gold, silver and other rare earth elements. Historically, the methods to extract and process these materials require large inputs of energy, water and land, and often have an outsized impact on local communities.

To ensure that the benefits of oceans technology are not offset by the costs of production, we must continue to identify opportunities to mitigate negative environmental and social impacts. Precious metals, for example, can be extracted from old electronic devices and reused (like the medals for the 2020 Olympic games). Organizations promoting the uptake of technology could choose to purchase from companies prioritizing fair trade practices: companies like Fairphone are already prioritizing carbon neutrality and recycled materials for smartphone production. This commitment to reducing the environmental and social costs of technology production should be adopted throughout the oceans technology production sector.

Proper disposal

Disposal is another important consideration. As devices reach the end of their life, they become electronic waste, or e-waste, which is currently the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Right now, the oceans technology sector contributes a tiny portion to the e-waste problem, but if we intend to scale up the use of technology across the world’s fisheries, we would do well to consider disposal or up-cycling options as a fundamental part of early project design. Increased understanding of the resources necessary for production can result in smarter consumerism. While these solutions might not completely offset all costs of production and e-waste, mitigating the negative impacts from waste can make a substantial difference.

The human context

Three billion people across the globe rely on fisheries for food security, livelihoods, well-being and more, and digital technologies can help to improve these important services. But each fishing community or region is unique, culturally and in other ways, and may face different challenges and opportunities. Not everyone is well-placed to receive the benefits new technology provides. Currently, only those who can afford it are the ones benefitting. And sometimes efforts to implement technology can occur on broad, national scales that fail to take into account local needs, customs and practices.

Exploring ways to improve access to technologies to all ocean users through better financing and other funding mechanisms is essential for improving equity of access. And if technological and management strategies adapt to the context of specific communities through participatory processes such as human-centered design, we can help to ensure equitable outcomes for communities.

Ultimately, technology alone will not make fisheries more sustainable — people will.

The path forward

As with any technological solution to an environmental problem, there are tradeoffs. New and emerging technologies have the potential to predict and prepare for climate change, protect human rights, improve well-being and foster greater environmental stewardship. As we strive for a sustainable and equitable ocean economy that empowers and improves the livelihoods of fishers and coastal communities around the world — facilitated through the uptake of digital technologies — decisionmakers and stakeholders need to account for the environmental and social impacts of these innovations and take steps to mitigate those impacts. In doing so, the net benefits of oceans technology will increase along with the potential it has to empower and improve the livelihoods of fishers and coastal communities around the world.