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Developing zero-carbon aquaculture through data science

24 Oct 2019

A collaboration led by Victoria University of Wellington has received $13 million in funding to help New Zealand transition to a zero-carbon society by applying data science to the aquaculture industry.

“New Zealand’s greatest opportunity to transition to a zero-carbon economy while improving livelihoods and wellbeing is to develop our aquaculture industry using data science,” says Professor Mengjie Zhang from the University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, who will lead the collaboration. 

The University is working with Plant & Food Research, Cawthron Institute and University of Otago researchers on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment-funded project.

Professor Zhang says, “Through this project we aim to develop innovative data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning techniques that will enable the aquaculture industry to keep growing efficiently and at large scale, producing high-quality, low-carbon protein for New Zealand and the world without compromising the environment.”

The collaboration will develop data science tools to optimise the farming of Greenshell mussels and finfish in open ocean farms.

“Collecting and incorporating various types of data through this project will unlock significant advantages for the aquaculture industry,” says Professor Zhang. “Farm managers can use these data to drive decision-making when responding to climate challenges, managing disease, improving production yields, and farming sustainably at scale.” 

The research team is aiming to develop innovative evolutionary and statistical learning techniques for use in the aquaculture industry, Professor Zhang says. 

“These learning techniques will help create better AI, which can be used to expand the capacity of the mussel and finfish farms,” he says. “This is an area in which Victoria University of Wellington scientists are leaders and can bring significant expertise to the table.

“It is exciting to see data science becoming more integrated into New Zealand’s growing aquaculture sector to allow for more precise decision making and efficient production for the future, and we look forward to using data science in our work to develop new systems for open ocean aquaculture,” says Dr Maren Wellenreuther, Science Group Leader at Plant & Food Research.  

A significant focus for the programme is building Māori capacity in data science.

“Māori own significant aquaculture assets but are under-represented in the field of data science,” Professor Zhang says. “This project aims to bring together data science and Māori communities with aquaculture interests.

“Our intention is to help produce the next generation of Māori graduates capable of leading the technology development needed to scale up the industry.

“We also hope that this project will increase New Zealand’s overall capability in data science,” says Associate Professor Ivy Liu, head of the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics. A total of 12 PhDs, 16 Master’s and 35 honours students will be involved in the project along with 5 postdoctoral fellows and 35 summer research projects.

“We hope this will grow New Zealand’s capacity in data science by embedding academically trained, early-career scientists across a range of organisations linked to the aquaculture sector, alongside the data science programmes available and being developed at Victoria University of Wellington,” Associate Professor Liu says.

The project also aims to foster national and international collaboration, bringing together a large group of educational, industry, and research organisations from New Zealand and around the world. 

Dr Ross Vennell, Cawthron Institute lead researcher on the project, says aquaculture requires smart, data-driven decision making to help meet the government’s target of aquaculture being a 3-billion-dollar industry by 2035.

“This new collaboration brings together world-leading data science and aquaculture science expertise with decades of industry experience. New Zealand is set to become a global centre of excellence in data science and technologies for sustainable aquaculture.”

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