Alexander Dungate is changing the way we fish
The co-founder of Vancouver-based OnDeck Fisheries AI aims to support the commercial fishing industry with its tools to automate monitoring of catch.
Companies in B.C. have powered the province’s economy through the harvest of natural resources for decades. But veterans in the space are ripe for disruption. On the rise are young Vancouver-based founders who can straddle both worlds of traditional resource management and emerging technology towards long-term sustainability. We’ve already seen this in 25-year-old Arthur Chen of agtech startup Verdi. Now, 24-year-old Alexander Dungate of OnDeck Fisheries AI is building a solution that the ocean economy has long been asking for.
Dungate was born and raised in Vancouver, but spent much of his upbringing in the water. “I grew up spending a lot of time in the Gulf Islands: playing in tide pools, loving the ocean and all the funky creatures I could find.” This led to an undergraduate degree at UBC that was split into two parts: biology, which naturally leaned into a focus in fisheries science; and computer science, which stemmed from his love of puzzles and his parallel interest in navigating the digital world.
Throughout his studies, Dungate actively sought opportunities to apply his computer science skills to the world of biology, particularly in marine conservation. In his last year of university, the puzzle pieces fit into place. “I took an amazing class with the most incredible professor, professor Amanda Vincent. And in that class, I was introduced to the world of fisheries monitoring.”
The pains of monitoring fishing vessels
The Canadian government requires that vessels have a monitoring program in place to effectively manage and control their catch. Given the global decline in fish stocks—largely due to overfishing by commercial vessels—the data collected is essential for ensuring healthy populations, especially beyond commercial usage. For example, many Indigenous communities such as the Coast Salish rely on salmon as a culturally significant food for consumption and in ceremonial practices. Unfortunately, salmon stocks along the central coast have experienced up to a 94 per cent decline in population since 1954.
In Canada, the primary method of fisheries monitoring has been through a hired third-party at-sea observer. “They go out to sea for weeks or months, and then [they] count all the fish that come on board and make sure everybody's following the rules,” said Dungate. “That's great. But the problem is, it's unbelievably expensive—$600 to $800 a day that the captain has to pay to have this person on the boat. And it's a super dangerous career.”
The risk is especially pronounced for women in the role. In 2021, an 11-month-long investigation found a number of women at-sea observers who shared stories of abuse and sexual harassment on board the ships: stuck at sea with their abusers for up to months at a time, with little to no support from their employers and the ministry.
Dungate notes that the industry is shifting away from at-sea observers and towards video monitoring. “[Vesels will] put a camera, or more likely many cameras on the boat, somewhere high up looking down on the deck. And then they film mostly 24/7 for the entire fishing trip,” said Dungate. “And then back on shore, the fishing vessel comes back with thousands of hours of video footage, and then [someone] sits down at a computer and manually counts all the fish that pass by on the boat.” This process is not only long and arduous, but also inefficient. “For example, in Washington State, [one company is] about a year and a half behind on working their way through this video footage.”
Here was where his two worlds of oceans and technology first collided. “As my professor is explaining this to me, I see the very clear opportunity in my mind—in my homework [for] my computer science classes.”
Where AI meets fisheries monitoring
Dungate’s homework was to master object tracking: an application of artificial intelligence that allows for a computer program to visually identify an object as it moves real-time within a video. When he saw the opportunity to apply this to fisheries monitoring, he quickly went to his professors with questions. “Luckily, UBC happens to be a global powerhouse for fisheries science. And so they put me in touch with industry thought leaders right away,” he said.
Dungate grew up recreationally catching prawns, crab, and sole with his family, so I asked him what it was like navigating this world through a commercial lens for the first time. To his surprise, although he was still a student, everyone answered his phone calls. He would email the generic info-at-company-dot-com and receive a response from the institution’s president or CEO. “It's an industry that is desperately looking for better ways to do [fisheries monitoring] ... I guess the reason everybody's answering our calls is that nothing's changed in 20 years.”
OnDeck now has a growing team working to automate the video review process in fisheries monitoring using the artificial intelligence methods of object tracking he first encountered in his computer science class homework. “We build tools to make [tracking] faster—that's where we specifically make it scalable.”
Across the ecosystem, OnDeck continues to attract inbound interest in its budding product. For the fishers: “What we're doing helps reduce their monitoring costs and their compliance costs.” What about the monitoring companies? “They are excited about what we're doing, because it makes their business more scalable.” And governments and regulatory agencies? “They are also super excited about what we're doing, because it leads to better fishery science and higher monitoring coverage.”
Capital to support the journey
In the Canadian ecosystem, there exists a healthy amount of cash and support to champion ocean innovation. Victoria’s Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST) recently launched an accelerator to help local leaders scale in the “blue” economy. Nationally, Ocean Supercluster Canada has CAD $750 million to invest in projects over the next five years.
Since incorporating in April 2022, OnDeck has leveraged success in the blue economy. The company has won over CAD $170,000 in grants and awards from ocean-focused institutions such as Canada’s Ocean Startup Challenge and even internationally from Australia’s Ocean Impact Organization.
But local non-dilutive grants and topic-focused award money can only go so far. The challenge ahead will be how Dungate raises funding from investors who aren’t as familiar with the ocean ecosystem. Other local innovators in the ocean economy have spoken of the difficulty in building support for the space, largely because of the general population’s relative unfamiliarity with ocean-based industries. “It appears to be a risky and scary place,” said Eric Enno Tamm, founder of This.Fish, a software company that automates supply chain traceability for seafood processors.
However, Dungate is already fluent in the financial pain points of the industry: for example, he describes the inefficiency of fisheries monitoring as a “rate-limiting step” that prevents the scale-up of global sustainable fisheries management. As OnDeck begins the momentum of fundraising, Dungate’s eagerness to speak the language of scale and markets, alongside an enthusiasm to bring new investors into the space, could serve him well. “I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to introduce the world of fisheries to so many people who don't think about it. It's such a critical industry: it feeds 2.9 billion people around the world who rely on fish as a source of protein. Eight-hundred-million people around the world rely on fisheries for their livelihoods ... I do feel very lucky with everything I do at OnDeck.”
The future ahead
As an early-stage company, OnDeck has a lot to prove this year. I asked Dungate how his company’s tools fare in variable conditions, especially given the rough weather at sea. He agrees that this is a significant challenge: making the technology generalized enough to work in any context. Nonetheless, Dungate is confident of its applications: “What we've built is able to process footage from almost any different type of camera, looking at different types of boats, different types of fishing.”
2023 will demonstrate how well OnDeck can live up to its claims: the company is kicking off the year with the launch of its first paid industry pilot. The months ahead, Dungate says, will be focused on scale. “Scaling everything—deploying our product with customers around the world, growing our team, and leveraging larger amounts of funding. It's going to be a very exciting year.”
Dungate does have one occupation in mind that he hasn’t been able to take on just yet. “I've never been a professional fisherman, or an industrial fisherman,” he said. “It's on my list. I'd love to try it.” So for anyone with a fishing vessel keen to hire a package deal—a new fisherman who can also help you monitor your catch—keep Dungate in mind.
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