Stopping overfishing? There’s an app for that

© Polsin Junpangpen

Above: Fisherman at sunset in Thailand.

Smartphone apps have revolutionized how we bank, how we take the bus, even how we date.

Add “how we fish” to the list.

As overfishing continues to push global fish populations to the brink of collapse, app developers are seeking to apply a similar efficiency to one of the world’s most urgent problems.

To that end, some 2,000 coders and marine experts recently took part in the 2016 “Fishackathon,” a weekend-long challenge aimed at solving for nine key threats facing global fisheries. In its third year — and now spread across 43 countries — the Fishackathon has grown since its 2014 launch at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Our Ocean conference.

The challenges facing marine conservationists have only grown since then.

“These challenges range from automating fish identification, counting and sizing to providing key information to both fishers and managers (through smartphones) about the presence of marine protected areas, boundary jurisdictions and other policies to encourage compliance,” said Augustus Montebon, the coastal, marine and fisheries program manager at Conservation International’s Philippines office. “Ghost fishing (marine life caught in lost or abandoned fishing gear like traps or drift nets) also needs to be addressed, as does the issue of potential invasive species going into freshwater bodies.”

The teams participating in Fishackathon Manila hard at work developing their apps.

The teams participating in Fishackathon Manila hard at work developing their apps. (© Conservation International/photo by Augustus Montebon)

Fishackathon participants focused on one or more of these specific concerns, creating apps and other user-friendly tech centered on data collection and analysis, monitoring and information-sharing. Mobile apps allow fishermen, scientists, government agencies and laypeople to easily access and acclimate to the latest technology with relatively low costs.

Montebon, who was on hand as a marine expert at this year’s Fishackathon Manila, which took place April 22–24, described the scene: “The young coders who approached me were interested in simultaneously addressing maritime domain awareness [understanding of how any maritime activity could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of a specific country] and providing an information portal where critical information can be accessed for specific management areas. Another group delved into the ecological dynamics of fish spawning to address invasive species.”

In the Philippines, the stakes are high. More than 40 million people depend on the goods and services derived from the waters between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. “Fishing is a major source of livelihood,” Montebon said, “and in order to make sure it’s done sustainably, tools must be in place to help fishers participate and comply with measures in improving fisheries.”

The winners of the Manila event — a group called Liquido — developed an app, dubbed “SuFishInT” that provides three kinds of information:

  1. General information on fisheries for public awareness, displaying the fisheries rules and regulations in a particular area and listing all fish species that are legal to catch there.
  2. Biological information for particular species, including habitat requirements, abundance, spawning season and the best time to catch them.
  3. Active monitoring of all fishing vessels in the area in real time, which uses GPS and vessel monitoring systems to help the local fisheries agency address illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“If this app is adopted and used widely by the national fisheries agency, it could provide a breakthrough in our fight to stop illegal fishing in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape,” Montebon said.

Liquido’s app will now compete against the set of finalists selected by the host cities and the virtual Fishackathon. Finalists could refine their apps before submitting them to the global panel of judges on April 25, at which point the panel began the six-week process of judging on innovation, impact and interface. A winner will be announced on World Oceans Day, June 8, getting bragging rights and a share of the US$ 10,000 in cash and prizes. Perhaps more exciting for the hackers: One team will receive a development grant and their app will be independently developed by a U.S. government contractor.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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