Like Shazam, but for Fish

A new device uses infrared waves to rapidly identify species and fight fish fraud.

Published June 7, 2016

You’re in a crowded fish market and, hovering your phone over a fillet, you’re instantaneously informed of its species—just as Shazam recognizes an elusive tune on the radio. In the future, this technique—called infrared spectrometry—could help track fish fraud before it goes too far.

Fish are experiencing a global identity crisis: on every continent save Antarctica, fishmongers have been found selling their catches under the guise of different species. Purposefully substituting less expensive species for pricier fare creates a profit for some, but comes at huge cost to the sea: fish fraud makes it harder to monitor fish stocks, placing threatened species at risk. Mislabeled sales also create a convenient cover for the opportunistic sale of illegally caught seafood.

But what if this duplicitous activity could be revealed by anyone, anywhere—from the harbor to the marketplace? Two London-based developers, Yassine Santissi and Sam Mbale, have invented an infrared fish-scanning device called Fishazam that could one day allow just that. Santissi and Mbale’s device uses a mobile phone and a portable infrared spectrometer to reveal signature cues in a fish’s molecular composition, giving a quick test of its authenticity.

Santissi and Mbale built the Fishazam prototype in April at the Fishackathon, an annual competition run by the US Department of State. The global challenge brings together technologists and coders to build tools to address the sustainability issues facing the fishing industry.

Fishazam won the London, UK, edition of the Fishackathon, and will be competing in the global finals, online, on June 8.

One of the team’s biggest challenges was creating a device that was small and affordable enough to potentially see widespread adoption. Professional infrared spectrometers cost thousands of dollars, so Santissi and Mbale built “a makeshift DIY” version using open-source software. Connected to a mobile phone via Bluetooth, the spectrometer scans a substance and then sends an image to the phone called a spectrogram that contains information about the substance. To analyze this resulting pattern, Fishazam uses a tweaked version of the algorithm that underpins Shazam, the song-identification app.

“The algorithm recognizes and matches the pattern with a song, in Shazam’s case, and with a fish fillet in our case,” says Santissi, who is an economist by training.

In the hands of fishers, wholesalers, and fishmongers, a tool like this could be used to rapidly survey seafood and determine what it is, helping to halt the onward sale of mislabeled catch.

“A small, portable instrument that has the accuracy to confirm the type of fish will find use at various points across the supply chain,” says Nada O’Brien, product manager at Viavi Solutions, a company that has developed and commercialized a handheld, near-infrared spectrometer for food and agricultural applications. She’s also published research showing the potential of such a device to authenticate fish species.

Though not quite as accurate as DNA analysis, infrared techniques have some advantages. Genetic techniques generally require a laboratory, and can take weeks to identify a fish—too cumbersome a process for customs officials or wholesalers who need to examine product quickly.

“The idea is to make this widespread, not just available in a lab situation,” Santissi says.

O’Brien cautions, however, that a spectrometer needs to be high quality and rely on a robust database to work well. “It takes a lot of effort to build a credible database of fish and a good instrument,” she says.

For these reasons, Santissi hopes to upgrade the device to feature a more precise, professional spectrometer. If they win the Fishackathon global championships, the prize will come with a purse of US $10,000, which Santissi says would be enough to fit Fishazam with a sophisticated spectrometer.

Santissi says he’s hopeful about Fishazam’s potential to be used as a surveillance tool: with more attention on fish, fraudsters would find it riskier to switch species. “If you keep everybody on their toes, then there’s a greater incentive to fish sustainably.”