Using AI to optimize aquaculture

Mikael Lefebvre is happy to admit when he signed on with XpertSea a little over a year ago as the chief revenue officer, he didn’t know much about the aquaculture industry or the technological side of farming fish. “I didn’t know anything at all, honestly,” he says with a chuckle. “Food has always been a passion for me, though.” Thanks to him and the other 60-odd employees at the Quebec City–based firm, it’s fair to say there’s a lot more food in the world for everyone to be passionate about. 

Founded in 2009 by Valérie Robitaille and Cody Andrews, XpertSea developed an AI-driven data management platform that offers fish farmers real-time insights to help make their aquaculture concerns more efficient and sustainable. The platform leverages artificial intelligence to help producers standardize data collection, track growth, improve animal health and optimize harvest decisions. They also can view animal images to detect early signs of disease or deformities, generate optimized feed prescriptions based on real growth and predict best harvest dates based on market prices.

Initially, the company was set up to provide solutions for salmon aquaculture, but a call from someone interested in potential applications for the shrimp industry inspired them to see the potential in expanding into the global shrimp market. As a result, XpertSea’s Growth Platform is now the leading farm management solution in the shrimp industry, used at more than 400 facilities in about 50 countries worldwide. 

In Thailand, for instance, XpertSea was selected to deploy a collaborative farm solution to help manage production risks at shrimp farms across the southeast Asian nation. About 150 shrimp farmers are taking part in the Shrimp Health Resources Improvement Project (SHRImP), a program managed by the U.S. non-profit Sustainable Fisheries Partnership in collaboration with the Netherlands-based IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative. 

“Past experience has shown how devastating the impact of disease outbreaks can be to the industry, costing billions of dollars in lost revenue and growth opportunities,” says Anton Immink, aquaculture program director at the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, adding that XpertSea’s expertise will help reduce the potential impact of disease outbreaks through systems built on improved data collected from – and used by – farms and management agencies. 

The project’s technology components include XperCount, a portable smart device that automatically captures data about organisms; XpertSea’s growth platform, which allows farmers and field technicians to enter and visualize production data from any mobile device; and a partner platform that provides third parties such as government fisheries departments and universities the ability to securely access and manage the collected data to give advice and insights to farmers.

“We really feel like we’re feeding the world, when we’re helping farmers produce more with less,” Lefebvre says. “In the current environment, it’s super important.” 

That may be an understatement. In 2016, a United Nations report on the state of world fisheries and aquaculture found the need to feed the world’s estimated 10 billion people in 2050 will inevitably rely more and more upon the seafood that humans can raise themselves. As wild fish stocks plummet around the world, aquaculture is picking up the slack, with the industry experiencing a 6 percent annual growth rate and now supplying half of all fish for human consumption, up from 26 percent in 1994. 

Investors are taking notice, paying particular attention to companies providing technological tools to help farmers increase their output. Last year, XpertSea announced it had raised $10 million in Series A financing, an investment Robitaille said at the time would help XpertSea build up its team and expand its technology offerings, leading to both higher profits for aquaculture producers and positive environmental returns for the planet. 

Another sign of heightened interest in smart aquaculture was this year’s Aquaculture Awards hosted by Aquaculture UK in Edinburgh, where judges specifically singled out the Technical Innovation category as one of the most hotly contested categories in this year’s awards. Lefebvre and Robitaille were on hand to accept the award on behalf of XpertSea, with Robitaille noting the rising interest in advancing aquaculture is an acknowledgment of the industry’s growing importance as a sustainable source of protein for consumers. 

Indeed, Lefebvre sees aquaculture’s increasing productivity as a rising tide that lifts all boats in the industry – and companies like his, those that provide fish farms of all sizes with the analytical tools they need to stay on top of their stock, will be in a good position to ride the wave. 

“We’re barely just scratching the surface,” he says, adding that the company is exploring the potential in working with other species, including trout and sea bass. “We have a lot of resources to build upon here [in Canada]. There’s a lot of knowledge that we can export around the world. And you know, it’s so humbling and rewarding when you meet a farmer in a remote place in India, and he tells us he’s making more money with the tools we gave him.”  

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