July 9, 1998 Patrick Simpson, the son of Alaskan fishermen, has developed software and a type of sonar that will help fisheries while reducing harmful effects on the environment. Simpson, with the assistance of the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, created Scientific Fisheries Systems Inc. (SciFish) in 1993.
After receiving a computer science degree, Simpson had trouble finding work in his home state. He moved to California where he worked for defense contractors and distinguished himself in the area of neural networks. There, Simpson realized he could merge his defense technology expertise with his background in fisheries to develop a business that he could move to Alaska. With the help of the SBIR grant, Simpson was able to pack his company in a rental van and haul himself back home.
This August, SciFish will release the latest version of the software, Fisherman's Associate 2.0, which combines fishery, oceanographic and navigational data to direct fishers towards more productive waters. As a former fisherman, Simpson was able to draw upon his experience to create software which takes some of the guesswork out of fishing. "By processing all this data," says Simpson, "we can enable fishers to get a better return while minimizing their impact on the ecosystem."
Some evidence suggests that the world's current fishing fleets could easily over-fish the ocean. This could result in the collapse of an important source of food for both humans and animals. In response to over-fishing and bycatch-catching animals that were not intended for harvest-regulations worldwide have put restraints on common fishing practices.
According to NSF program manager Sara Nerlove, one of the great strengths of the SBIR program is that "it can foster technologies that nobody else might risk funding; research that could lead to significant public benefits. Not only will Patrick's efforts have a profound effect on the state of Alaska, but also globally affect how people can sustain a finite resource: the world's fish stocks."
Using technology first developed in the defense industry, SciFish has also created a prototype sonar device capable of identifying individual species of fish. This capability will become an integral part of the Fisherman's Associate 2.0; it will allow commercial fishers to identify fish before they pull them out of the ocean.
"We have moved beyond using a single frequency sonar to using a broadband system that emits a greater range of frequencies which, in turn, gives us more information about individual fish," said Simpson. The difference between the two types of sonar is like the difference between color and black and white versions of the same photograph of flowers. They both show you the tulips, but only the color picture can tell you which ones are red.
The success of Simpson's company has spawned a new interest in bringing other high-tech industries to Alaska. Simpson co-founded the Alaska High-Tech Business Council to help establish Alaska as a place where high-tech businesses can thrive. The council strives for Alaska to become less economically dependent on natural resources.
Building on the success of Fisherman's Associate, SciFish has been busy working on another NSF SBIR grant for work to benefit the fishing industry. This one for Observer's Associate, software designed to improve the ability of inspectors to monitor fishing catches.
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