Fresh fish is not really fresh, even straight from the boat. The way they are caught and killed is not only inhumane, but harmful to the resulting flesh. There is a much better alternative, but it is time consuming and manual – but Shinkei Systems has figured out a way to automate it even on the deck of a moving boat and landed $1.3 million to market his machine.
It’s unpleasant to think about, but fish harvesting doesn’t really think about the comfort of the fish. How could it be on the scale at which fishing boats operate? What usually happens is that the fish are dumped out of the net, coarsely sorted and then thrown onto the ice to flutter around and eventually suffocate minutes or hours later. Not good!
Not only is this cruel, it also causes the fish’s body to degrade faster from stress, bacteria in wounds and blood, and lactic acid in the muscles.
Anyone who catches fish one by one knows of course that you have to keep them alive in the water or kill them right away to get the best taste. Usually this involves being sedated with a blow to the head and then decapitated and stripped. Still not pretty, but it’s better than the alternative.
Yet there is an even better way, a traditional Japanese method called ike-jime. Doing it this way is not only the most humane but also preserves the meat so well that it can last for days or weeks longer than choked fish and it tastes much better too. The problem is, it’s a kind of art.
Ike-jime involves piercing the brain with a sharp point to send the fish to fish heaven, then quickly bleeding it out and then destroying the spinal cord. Horrifying yes, but all these things prevent stress, suffering and the spread of bacteria and destructive substances throughout the body. But it has to be done exactly and within a few minutes of the fish being caught, so it doesn’t really scale.
At least, unless you automate it, which Shinkei Systems has done. The team, led by co-founder Saif Khawaja, has developed a mechanical way of reaching ike-jime on freshly caught fish, at a rate of one every 10-15 seconds.
The machine, about the size of a large refrigerator, has a funnel for incoming fish, a work area and an exit where it can go into an ice bath. A computer vision system identifies the species and shape of the fish it is holding, locates the brain and other important parts, and goes through the ike-jime movements, dispatching the fish quickly and reliably.
“The robotics performs with surgical-grade accuracy — our vision for this is that it’s completely hands-free, no operator,” Khawaja said, noting that it’s also robust against the natural pitch and roll of boats. “But it’s not just edge detection; we use machine learning in our backbone. Even in the same species, even with the same contour, the brain may be in a different location. The advantage of our technology is that we adapt to all fish.”
This isn’t all done in a remote Silicon Valley garage either. “We have already implemented our first versions in pilots; When I first started this project, I took Midnight Greyhounds to go to the dock at 3am when they go out because that’s the only way to talk to them. We work with fishermen in Maine, New Hampshire and on Cape Cod, and we work with distributors for major Manhattan restaurants.”
It’s not just because of the fish that Shinkei and his partners are going through all this. Kitchens pay a fee for fish processed through ike-jime because it tastes better and lasts longer. The question for Shinkei was whether their machine-processed fish were comparable to those made by hand.
“Probably the most exciting thing that has happened, and also the simplest, is that we handed our fish over to a sous chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant, one of the best in the world,” Khawaja said. “We gave him three boxes of fish: one choked, one hand processed, the third was us. The choked one was obvious, but he couldn’t tell the difference between the other two.”
Sushi chefs are probably more tech-conscious, but ike-jime is starting to gain traction outside its current niche and Shinkei wants to accelerate that. By making it as simple as loading a machine, they can allow more fishing boats and distributors to participate, earn more money and also do good for the fish.
Shinkei has raised $1.3 million in a pre-seed round filed in January and is now looking for further investment after initial testing and design review. “What we’re doing with this increase is improving R&D and improving throughput of the device,” which is slower than skilled people, but has a lot of room for improvement. “We should be ready to go into production in the coming months. Now that we are in the sales process, we are also meeting more large-scale distributors and public companies. We just want to put the machine in people’s hands.”