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Technologies for Small-Scale Fisheries – Reflections from SAFET Session #3

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 –

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