While the streets of London were being pounded with thousands of runners in the Virgin Money London Marathon, computer keys were being pounded and the midnight oils burned by seven teams in the 2016 London Fishackathon at the offices of The Economist. 

The Fishackathon was launched in 2014 at the Our Ocean conference by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and since then has grown immensely. This past weekend London was one of 43 cities worldwide that played host to more than 2000 coders, developing solutions to the problem of global overfishing.

I arrived at the offices of the Economist at the end of a heady, caffeine fueled, sleep deprived weekend for the teams. Being invited as a judge to this year’s competition was indeed an honour however, I felt rather like the man who, many years ago, started the London marathon but then, shortly after the start, jumped on the London underground, bypassed the agony and ecstasy of running the actual marathon only to show up at the finish line, and fraudulently basked in the glory with all the other finishers.  

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Oceans, Fishackathon

The innovation, creativity and initiative showed by each of the teams was remarkable, and renewed my faith that new solutions to the plight of the ocean are indeed possible. While overfishing represents a vast number of issues, many of which Ocean Unite is seeking to address, the London teams focused their efforts on developing clever apps and solutions to deal with fish fraud, seafood traceability, illegal fishing and ghost fishing nets.

Being able to trace a fish, from boat to plate, is critical, so that consumers know where it came from, how it was fished and what happened to it along the seafood supply chain.

Fish fraud, the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits, is increasingly being found to be endemic in the seafood supply chain. Very few people, even sushi chefs, can distinguish between pieces of fish once they are processed, making detecting fraud extremely difficult. When we buy a piece of fish in the market, or get served a plate of seafood at a restaurant, we put all of our trust that the fish is what the label says it is – but should we?

A recent study by Oceana showed, through DNA testing, that all is not what it seems. They found that 33 per cent of fish sold by retailers in the US was mislabeled. DNA testing has been the only way to decipher this fraud and distinguish between species – until now.

The winners of the London 2016 Fishhackathon, Team Fishazam, come up with an ingenious solution to tackle fish fraud. Anyone who has a smart phone will likely have an app which, when you instruct it, will listen to a piece of music and instantaneously tell you what it is. Fishazam came up with a similar process of using signatures, but instead of sound they use light – light which is not visible to you or me.

This next bit is for the science geeks. Team Fishazam based their idea on a recent study that investigated the possibility of using infrared spectroscopy as a tool for the identification of valuable species (e.g. red mullet and plaice) that have been substituted with cheaper ones (e.g. Atlantic mullet and flounder). They found that different species of fish emit different levels of infrared light, which means they can distinguish between species almost instantaneously be it fresh or frozen.

Virgin Unite. Ocean Unite, Oceans, Fishackathon

They still have some way to go in building up the Fishazam database, but they hope to create one that catalogues at least a 100 of the most common species of seafood.  What does this mean in practice once this has been fully developed? It means that a fish inspector, consumer or retailer in any country in the world, without any specialist knowledge, could use their smartphone and quickly confirm that the fish in the box matches the label describing it.

A key area that Ocean Unite works on is ending illegal fishing globally, a practice that results in losses in excess of $23 billion a year.  

Being able to trace a fish, from boat to plate, is critical, so that consumers know where it came from, how it was fished and what happened to it along the seafood supply chain (and whether it has been substituted for something else). Not only do we want to be sure about what we are eating (think horsemeat scandal in Europe), but retailers and processors need to be certain that their seafood supply is legally, ethically and sustainably sourced which includes ending fish fraud.

I cannot help feeling that with more events like the Fishackathon we would create more innovative approaches that would respond with that urgency needed to reverse the cycle of ocean decline.

So, yes I did take the London underground to get the finish line, and yes I did not participate in the Fishackathon, but boy did I enjoy spending time with those who did. I hope that others will be inspired by what these coders achieved in such short amount of time and encourage them all to go full steam ahead with their ideas.

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