A Data Plan for Fish

OurFish app opens a window into small-scale fishing.

Published June 29, 2017

Every morning in the seaside villages on Útila Cays, tiny islets in Honduras’s Bay Islands, fishermen load their wooden dories or fiberglass boats with containers of ice and fuel, then head out onto the crystalline Caribbean water in search of coral reef fish such as grouper and snapper. In deeper waters, they hunt for tuna.

In the afternoon, they return to shore. The fishermen almost always head straight back to the person who sold them their ice and fuel to sell their freshly caught fish. Every exchange between the fisher and the buyer—whether ice, fuel, or fish—is recorded, often with a pencil and damp notebook. These notebooks hold valuable fisheries data, and offer a window into the murky world of small-scale fishing.

Marine biologist Steven Box, vice president of global fisheries for the nonprofit conservation organization Rare, has spent the better part of the past 11 years trying to access this data. Though early attempts to digitize fish buyers’ books were successful, every new software update resulted in the team having to rebuild its databases from scratch.

“Paper is why catch reporting for small-scale fisheries is so bad globally,” Box says. In countries with limited government resources, data cannot be collected at a scale detailed enough to be useful on a policymaking level—or even at a level where communities can make informed decisions about their fisheries.

With more data on catches available to scientists, it could demystify the role small-scale and artisanal fishers play in global fisheries. It’s a role that has been seriously under-reported. Box believes having this data is key to slowing—or even reversing—the intractable overfishing that is occurring on the world’s coasts.

In 2015, Box began developing OurFish, an Android application that allows fish buyers to ditch their pencil and use the smartphone they already have to digitally log their purchases.

When tallying up a purchase, the buyer selects the species of fish from a series of photos—bypassing potential literacy and language barriers. Importantly, says Box, the app is designed to not disrupt buyers’ work. Buyers can also scan a code unique to each fisherman, connecting each transaction to a specific person. If a fisherman’s boat is outfitted with a GPS tracker, the catch can be matched to its origin.

So far, around 40 buyers in Belize and Honduras, who handle the purchases for around 4,000 fishers, have traded paper for touchscreens. Testing is also underway in Myanmar and Palau, and over the next year the team plans to bring the app to nearly a dozen countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico.

With backing from the Honduran and Belizean governments, and other nonprofit partners, Rare expects to roll out OurFish to 120 buyers, representing around 10,000 licensed artisanal fishers in the two countries by the end of 2017.

Rare is also working to get fish buyers in Myanmar to test the app. The nonprofit’s local coordinator, fisheries researcher Thu Yain Tun, has been working with Burmese fisheries agents to teach local fish buyers in the tiny village of Thabauseik, in southern Myanmar, how to use the app. So far, a handful of buyers, representing an estimated 14,000 fishers, have started reporting their catches.

In just a year and a half, Box says, buyers in Myanmar have logged more than 150,000 landings, accounting for more than 5,000 tonnes of fish. “And that’s starting from a pitch-black view of fisheries in Myanmar.”

Multiply that amount of fish by the two to three million fishers in the country, as well as the millions of fishers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and the other countries, and the true scale of the artisanal haul begins to emerge.

Tun says getting buy-in from the Burmese fishers has been slow and difficult. Myanmar’s southern peninsula comprises more than 800 islands, each of which has its own distinct fishing grounds and communities. Tun recounts story after story about fish stocks disappearing or shrinking; fishers are keenly aware there is a problem. Some Burmese fishers and buyers, however, are concerned that the data could be used to increase taxes, Box says.

But the training is giving the fishers a new perspective, Tun says.

“When they come back from fishing, they’re talking more about conservation, about how to protect their habitats, about how the size of the fish they keep matters. In the villages, they talk about fisheries management.”

Philip Dearden, a researcher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who has spent the past three decades studying fisheries conservation in Southeast Asia, says Rare’s app is a positive step, but its long-term success hinges on targeting the right communities first.

“There are certainly communities in Myanmar where there is strong social capital and a keen awareness of need for fish conservation,” Dearden wrote in an email. But lack of enforcement of protected areas and aggressive fishing tactics used by some—including dynamiting and reef compressor fishing—will remain a challenge, he adds.

But if the app catches on, there’s a better chance that real-time data on hard-to-reach fisheries actually makes it out of the buyers’ stations.

“There’s now momentum around the problem, and the need to solve it,” Box says. “This is a tool for communities to measure what is affecting their fisheries.”