Nelson fisherman and businessman Dom Talijancich loves his technology and has just about every sensor possible installed on his 24-meter trawler, Mako.

He has a headline net sounder that signals when fish have entered the net, trawl door sensors that indicate the spread of the trawl gear and catch sensors to signal when the net is full.

But he’s missing a critical piece of equipment – a camera and artificial intelligence (AI) system to identify what fish species are entering the net, and the quantities of different species accumulating in the net during the tow.

If this technology was available, Talijancich would install it in a heartbeat. It would enable him to fish both more efficiently and sustainably – something that every fisher wants to do.

But this not being the case he set about developing it himself, founding Advanced Conservation Solutions (ACS) in 2020 and bringing technology entrepreneur and fellow Nelsonian Toby Bailey on board as CEO.

After 18 months of research, development and trialling – enabled in part with a loan from Callaghan Innovation – the business partners now have a prototype system that is delivering exciting results.

The system comprises an underwater camera that can be attached to the headline or lengthener of a trawl net, species recognition software and a screen located on the bridge.

As fish come into the camera’s field of view, the system’s recognition software detects and identifies the species and transmits the data through the water, up to the vessel. Once the packaged data is received, it is interpreted and displayed on the screen alongside integrated GPS data.

This happens in real time – enabling fast, strategic fishing decisions.

As Talijancich explains it, being able to see what fish you’re catching, and in what quantities, means a skipper knows whether he’s catching his quota or filling a net with bycatch – unwanted or non-quota species that have to be landed and sorted on-deck.

“It’s a new tool that takes sustainable fishing to the next level. We think this should be a standard tool for skippers on all trawlers, both inshore and deep water,” Talijancich says.

“If I can see what’s happening, in real-time underwater, then I can decide that I’ve caught my quota and end the tow early. Or I could see that too much bycatch is going into the net and decide to change direction, move on or adjust the depth or speed of my tow to target a different species.

“This will allow fishers to be proactive in their sustainable fishing practice, getting the catch right before it’s landed and reducing discards. A shorter tow also means less contact with the seafloor which is another sustainability goal.

“And when we are running a net across the seafloor, we use the AI to classify the composition of the seafloor, to make sure we’re sticking to the muddy and sandy parts.

“Fishers don’t want to disturb rocky or seaweed habitats for environmental reasons and also the fact that rocks can damage nets and towing through a patch of seaweed means you spend the next week picking it out of your net.”

Talijancich and Bailey can also see the application of the technology to any changes to fishing legislation or government rules that might, in the future, allow fishers to release the contents of net underwater. This would be a decision a skipper could make, once legal, if they can see that a net is full of bycatch or if they can see a protected mammal has entered the net.”

With a career background in the UK developing advanced image sensors, Bailey is excited to be working on a technology solution that is currently out of reach for New Zealand fishers.

“The trials are really encouraging – the prototype is starting to prove itself and we are getting good support from the major fishing companies.

“The next steps are to demonstrate the system on different commercial fishing vessels and gather more results that will help secure investor funding so that we can scale-up and eventually commercialise this product.

“We want to make it affordable, for both the owner-operator of a single vessel and a company looking to tech-up their whole fleet.”