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More than four million commercial fishing vessels ply the world’s oceans, coastlines and waterways. Much attention has focused on the larger, industrial fleets due to their visibility, volume of catch, relative sophistication, and economic contribution in the global marketplace. Would it surprise you to know, however, that most fishing effort is conducted by ‘small-scale’ fishers, and that small-scale fisheries (SSF[1]) are responsible for more than half of the global capture fisheries landings in developing countries[2]? It’s true: SSF employ approximately 120 million people worldwide with some form of livelihood (at least half of them women) as well as providing local food security to hundreds of millions of people. But until the last decade or so, this sector was largely un-noticed and understudied.

(Credit: SSF Guidelines, FAO)

The stark realities of climate change, population growth, social inequity, food insecurity, and the importance of SSF to millions, if not billions, of people on this planet call for increased attention to SSF in global and national policy dialogues.

Given how important SSF are to a global human community heading towards 10 billion people, what are the key sustainability and socioeconomic challenges facing this sector, and how can emerging technologies support these valuable fishery activities and communities? That was the theme of the 3rd session of the 2020-21 SAFET virtual conference, held on December 17th, 2020. We heard from five speakers who are pioneering research and technology applications focused on improved understanding and management of SSF.

Our keynote speaker, Dr. John Virdin of Duke University, described SSF at a high level, noting that most SSF activities occur in the tropics (though not exclusively), that SSF data is often lacking or poorly understood, and that it’s challenging to compare SSFs across countries (or even regions) due to their highly variable nature. Dr. Virdin is working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WorldFish on a global assessment of SSF contributions to sustainable development goals using key indicators. Look for the full report, ‘Illuminating Hidden Harvests’, out by end of 2021. The digital revolution is making data collection of these indicators possible for researchers and fishery managers, and cost/accessibility are becoming less of a barrier. There’s now a greater wealth of information on SSF, and online communities are being established to share information about all aspects of SSF, including available technologies and other resources that can improve SSF outcomes (e.g., the new SSF Resource and Collaboration Hub).


Better spatial data on catch and effort in traditional fishing areas can legitimize fishers’ rights in situations where coastal development, industrial fleets, pollution, or other competing uses are threatening livelihoods. As one example, Dr. Alex Tilley of WorldFish described the development of a new program, PeskAAS, that captures near real-time data for the nearshore fisheries of Timor Leste. Previously, the government had little information about fishing activity. Dr. Tilley and his team worked directly with fishers to co-design a data collection tool that would be owned and generated by them that collect catch/effort data over space and time, which can also be shared with government for management purposes. Currently up to 10% of the fleet at 20 landing sites are involved with hopes of full coverage in a few years. Dr. Tilley emphasized the importance an inclusive design process built with strong local partnerships and transparency. This means ensuring that the systems/tools are affordable and open source. True to that goal, the data are available online for all to see.

Another example where technology applications are improving data for management was shared by Dr. Chris Cusack and Harlisa with EDF Oceans. The EDF team is working with stakeholders of Indonesia’s blue swimming crab fishery, a vitally important fishery employing ~300,000 people in the region. With thousands of vessels and only a paper trail on their activity, both the government and the fishers were blind to trends in catch or effort, which in time could result in an eventual crash and compromise their valuable export market.

Together with tech partners TeemFish and SnapIT, EDF is piloting a SmartPass system – cameras paired with machine learning to automatically identify and count fishing vessels (i.e., effort) that travel through coastal passages (e.g., harbor entrances). Local monitors are also piloting use of a smartphone app for catch data – Vericatch’s FisheriesApp.

The ‘smart’ camera system and the electronic catch data are providing the government a more accurate view of overall effort and catch volume. Preliminary results from the SmartPass system show a low error between human and algorithm estimates going in/out of the port. In the future, EDF envisions the system will be able to send vessel counts directly to managers over a wireless network, rather than having to process data on the cloud as currently happens. And in the future, this technology can offer multiple benefits for a variety of users and a range of geographies.

Another way that technology applications are improving SSF is the ability to integrate fishers’ traditional knowledge into the management process, and helping to build local community enterprises. A great example is the work being done in South Africa by Abalobi, which means ‘fisher’ in local isiXhosa language. Dr. Serge Raemakers described their process of first learning about the local traditional knowledge of a SSF and community, then co-designing the right tools for the specific challenges and bringing fisher knowledge into the decision-making process. Dr. Raemakers and his team have developed a range of interconnected mobile apps that allow fishers to record their catch, manage business logistics, and track revenue (figure).

They also have an app for monitoring fisheries for compliance or improvement projects. The value really comes with these apps being connected to a digital marketplace platform with transactional capabilities, so stakeholders can orchestrate orders, deal with logistics and compliance, and tell their story. Not only are these apps improving data collection for both fishers and managers, they are breaking down longstanding social and cultural barriers between fishing communities and their customers, who have historically been quite polarized.


Many thanks to our speakers, whose excellent presentations stimulated rich breakout conversations on a number of themes around SSF including labor issues, formalization of rights through licensing, increasing resilience to climate change (including integration with aquaculture as wild stocks dwindle), and bringing small-scale fishers into the global marketplace. The dialogues surfaced challenges, opportunities and connections that we hope will bear fruit for the SAFET community. One participant noted, ‘if knowledge is power, and data is knowledge…then more data will give SSF actors a voice at the decision-making table’.

Finally, technology spotlight sessions were offered by Vericatch, NavCast, FAME, Integrated Monitoring, Woods Hole Group, and Abalobi. Many thanks to these folks for providing great visuals and overviews of their products and services. If you are a tech provider who would like to offer a spotlight at our next session (traceability/supply chain), please let us know here!

The webinar recording and slides may be found on the SAFET website. Don’t forget to register for the next SAFET virtual session on February 18th, 2021 5-7:30pm PST (GMT-8). See you then!

[1] Artisanal, or small-scale fisheries, are traditional fisheries involving fishing households (as opposed to commercial companies), using relatively small amount to capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips, close to shore, and mainly for local consumption. (FAO Glossary definition) [2] FAO, 2018 – http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/I9540EN/

We are clearly living in the “digital age”. Everything we do, from our banking to our shopping as well as our workplace productivity, is either dependent on or enabled by digital technologies. Technologies like sensors, IoT, wireless communications and big data tools are all driving this evolution and as a result we have more powerful and diverse technologies at our fingertips today than at any point in history, and a confluence of information streams leading to oceans of data resources just waiting for analytical nets to be cast into them. We now have unprecedented potential to understand and influence the world around us.

While this evolution has reached the far corners of the globe, it has left fisheries in the shadows—fishers and management agencies continue to use a disjointed system of paper records, manual data entry, disconnected information silos, and archaic data analysis tools and methodologies, resulting in effectively inaccessible and unusable data. In a world where everyone—even fishers—carries a supercomputer in their pocket, it’s time for fisheries to move beyond paper and develop truly integrated strategies for managing fisheries information.

Achieving this objective was the subject of the most recent session of the Seafood and Fisheries Emerging Technologies conference series: "What Has Your Data Done For You Lately?: Getting The Most From Integrated Fisheries Technologies In A Changing World." An all-star line-up of speakers included Dr Sara Maxwell of University of Washington, Dr Transform Aqorau of iTuna Intel and Pacific Catalyst, Dr Elliot Hazen of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Dr George Maynard of Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and Dr Steve Martell of SeaState, Inc., presented on some of the most progressive efforts toward integrating fisheries technologies from around the world. Below are some of the highlights and themes from this recent session, including from the plenary and breakout sessions, which all emphasized how far we have come, but also how much further we need to go!

State of the Technology

Data systems have achieved a remarkable level of technical sophistication in data capture, storage, and analysis that is making data integration possible even in some of the most remote corners of the planet. For example, Dr Aqorau described an initiative to establish a fully automated “smart port” in Noro, Solomon Islands, where data systems from the vessel all the way through the processor will be fully integrated into a first of its kind facility for the Pacific tuna fisheries. Initiatives such as this demonstrate that technologies, especially data analysis tools and systems, are mature enough now to meet many of the objectives of securing fully integrated fisheries technology systems that make the most of available data.

But it is not enough to just collect data. We must consider the “back end” of the data stream—how that data gets used—from the outset when designing truly integrated systems that result in actionable knowledge. Interestingly, challenges expressed during all the discussion seemed more often than not to relate to cultural, procedural, and institutional challenges rather than technical ones.

Fostering Engagement and Participation

A tool is only as good as the willingness of people to accept and use that tool. In some contexts, fishers are willing to collect and share a wide array of information. In others, they seem reticent. Reasons for these positions range across issues such as lack of a clear benefit from collecting and sharing data, lack of assurances surrounding privacy, costs, concerns data won’t be used at all or will be used in ways that negatively impact their earnings, or the time and difficulty involved in actually collecting the data. Improving engagement and participation in the implementation of more integrated data systems will boil down to effectively addressing trust and incentives. One speaker noted that often the systems are designed for compliance purposes without considering the full scope of potential applications across multiple agency systems that could derive real value from the information, such as for economic analysis that would benefit the fishing fleet and managers and seafood markets, which are playing an increasingly influential role in driving the uptake of integrated digital data systems.

There will be increasingly more constraints on the fishing industry due to a more crowded ocean, including restrictions on whale interactions, expansion of Marine Protected Areas, establishment of wind/wave energy farms, aquaculture. Fisher-collected data included in a fully integrated system could help fully inform decision-making processes to ensure productive fishing grounds are maintained and competing uses are better managed, thereby creating a valuable incentive for fishers to engage in more and better data collection and sharing.

Data Sharing and Ownership

Participants identified the biggest challenges to increasing data integration and use as the lack of interoperability between data systems, inconsistency in methods and metadata for data capture and storage, a lack of faith in the veracity and validity of data, and the layers of bureaucracy often required to gain access. A lack of trust between data stakeholders is further exacerbated by data ownership and storage rules that often seem draconian or obtuse between one or more of the responsible parties. In some cases, legal or regulatory requirements lead to the confounding result of preventing fishers from being able to access data they collect on their own vessel!

Participants discussed a range of models for data ownership and management, including contractual arrangements among private parties in a cooperative structure and traditional top down management as part of government programs. One clear theme came through that, regardless of the context, very clear agreements need to be in place to ensure that data is used or shared consistent with an agreed set of standards and objectives that are well understood by all parties.

In the end, technology has a key role to play in data verification and validation, acknowledging that data quality for fisher-collected data can be a concern. Participants highlighted how new tools like Electronic Monitoring (EM) can help validate fisher-collected data and provide a feedback mechanism to crew collecting that data. However, that information is not useful if it is not provided in a format that is standardized, interoperable, and, ultimately, sharable. There are some efforts underway to improve data interoperability, including the FLUX TL Protocol in the EU and regional efforts toward data standardization, but more needs to be done to ensure the utility of data is maximized.

THANK YOU to all our speakers, and all of those who attended. The full plenary and speaker presentations can be found here.

Don't miss the next session! December 17th 6:00-8:00am PST (GMT -8)

Technologies for Small Scale Fisheries REGISTER

Electronic monitoring, or EM, technologies are playing a key role in advancing effective and equitable fisheries management. EM has been around for close to three decades — and yet widespread uptake has remained elusive. Is it the cost, the reluctance of fishermen to put a camera onboard, or the lack of broader policy standards for EM programs and data sharing? Maybe it’s all these factors (and more) that have held EM back, even as efforts have increased to scale the technology to more and more fisheries around the world.

But the tide is finally rising. Within the last five years, we have witnessed a digital revolution in fisheries-focused technology and a rapidly expanding EM market, now with over 20 companies offering products and services for both industrial and small-scale fisheries alike. As the technology becomes cheaper, more functional and more widely available, it looks like EM is set to go from its current use level (~2,500 vessels) to over 50,000 vessels in the next 10 years (CEA 2020). But what are the technological advances that are enabling this growth?

That’s the question that motivated over 140 participants from around the globe to drop in recently to the first session of the 20/21 Seafood and Fisheries Emerging Technologies (SAFET) conference. Over the course of two and a half packed hours — including a keynote by moderator Kate Wing, diverse speaker panel, breakout sessions and tech spotlights — we learned about the latest and greatest in EM technologies, and discussed the challenges holding it back.

Below is a curated list of key insights from our speakers and from breakout conversations. It seems the only things missing were the name badges and coffee breaks!


The potential benefits of automating EM review are huge, and so are the challenges with getting artificial intelligence (AI) up and running

Kydd Pollock and Matt Merrifield of the Nature Conservancy described their efforts to install EM systems and automate human review of longline tuna fisheries in the South Pacific. Working with the 8 member-nations of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, they’ve collected EM data on over 500 trips, and are using the imagery to develop algorithms that will assist and eventually automate review of the EM data. This dramatically speeds up the review process by showing the reviewer only the priority events (e.g., when a fish is coming on or off the boat), creating greater cost efficiency, not to mention happier reviewers spending less time in front of a screen.

AI-enabled EM systems for activity recognition and species identification show significant promise for overcoming some of the largest barriers to greater EM uptake, namely human review and data storage costs, and in some contexts reduced privacy concerns, especially where the AI works on the “edge,” meaning analysis is done on board the vessel and only summary information rather than images is sent to fishery managers.

Development of standards and protocols so that governments and institutions are comfortable sharing data is critical

For the high seas fisheries that are managed by regional fishery management organizations, or RFMOs, standards of use and privacy for data collected using EM is critical. From the Pacific Community, Malo Hosken presented on that organization’s efforts to integrate EM with existing monitoring practices for the tuna fleets of Pacific Island countries and territories — no small feat! Malo and his team have helped regional leaders establish data analysis standards and have developed an online reporting system (Dorado) to integrate data from various sources such as logbooks, observers and EM. He believes that data analysis standards are necessary for effective, self-sustaining EM, and ultimately for long-term tuna stock health and abundance in the region. This is an important consideration for other EM programs around the world.

The perceived cost of EM technology can be a barrier in small-scale fisheries, when in fact, inexpensive and easy-to-use hardware exists that can be matched to the needs of small-scale fisheries

Most EM programs have been implemented in larger, industrial-scale fisheries, leaving those in smaller fisheries wondering if EM is too expensive or difficult for the value of small-scale fisheries, or SSF. This is particularly unfortunate as small-scale fisheries are critical for livelihood and food security of hundreds of millions of globally, and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Dr. Todd Gedamke (MER Consultants), who has spent many years working in the smaller islands of the Caribbean, sees EM technology as a way to solve an age-old fisheries management problem: lack of basic life history data. Without robust quantitative data on size classes in the fishery and their mortality, it’s hard to know stock health and how hard to fish without depletion. Keeping low cost and simplicity in mind, Dr. Gedamke and his colleague Bill Hartford (Nature Analytics) have engineered a camera-based length measurement system for SSF that costs less than US$1,000 per system. They’ve also developed annotation software and have logged over 20,000 images for training algorithms. As Dr. Gedamke puts it: “Doing nothing is not an option … We have technology, we have cheap solutions, we should be getting this out to small-scale fisheries all around [the world].” We couldn’t agree more, and plan to cover the opportunities to apply technological solutions to SSF challenges in more detail in the December 2020 SAFET session.

Radical transparency can bring benefits to fishermen

Another innovative use of an EM camera is to earn the complete trust and confidence of your buyers. New Zealand fisherman Karl Warr is pioneering a whole new level of transparency using a deck camera and streaming live 24/7 to his website so anyone can view his fishing operation. His aim is simple: Karl is betting on attracting sustainability-focused customers who care where their seafood comes from and how it is caught. Of course, it takes more than just the video to get the fish where it needs to go, so Karl is partnering with Cathie Gould of Daily Catch, a new e-commerce platform to educate the seafood consumer, enhance the product and build relationships. This flips the driving force for monitoring on its head, from government regulators (i.e. fishery managers) to the progressive fisherman who wants to demonstrate accountability for business reasons, including a growing consumer base that wants to know how and where their fish is caught.

EM is not a panacea to solve all oversight issues, and should be used in concert with human observers and other tools

It is easy to get excited by all the digital potential that EM/AI tech has to offer. However, throughout the session we were reminded that human intelligence, or HI, is the most valuable asset we have in managing our fisheries well. By working together, with the current observer programs, fishery participants, managers and regulatory entities, we can ensure the technology we implement is practical and effective. By sharing what we know through papers, workshops and conferences like SAFET, we can overcome the longstanding challenges with EM to take us beyond a myriad of pilots to actual large-scale, fully implemented programs. That’s how we will get to 50,000 vessels by 2030, resulting in thriving fisheries and fishing communities even in the face of climate change.

THANK YOU to all speakers, and all of those who attended. The full plenary and speaker presentations can be found here.

Don't miss the next two sessions!

Oct. 29th 10-11am PST, Emerging Technologies and their Application in Fisheries Management (Special Session of the UK Space Agency, white paper release) REGISTER

Nov. 12th 8-10am PST, What has your Data done for you lately? Getting the Most from Sustainable Fishing Technologies REGISTER