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Mobile Apps: A Path Back to Traditional Fishing Knowledge

Picture of fishing boats in Gizo

Fishing boats anchored at shore in the afternoon sun in Gizo, Solomon Islands. Photograph courtesy Tim Welch/Point 97.

By Tim Welch

In the Solomon Islands, the older fishermen are impressive in their ability to fish the reefs. Keen knowledge of the currents, the moon phases, and the behavior of certain species inform their strategy each day.

Many of the fishermen, however, have been around long enough to recognize that the fish they rely on are growing smaller and more limited in number, even if they don’t understand this shift. Some think that the fish are there but they have grown wise and refuse to bite, leaving the fishermen to stay out longer, use more hooks, and harvest undersize or spawning fish—catch that would have traditionally been off limits.

In an area where fish is the major source of protein, reduced fish numbers and smaller fish are indicators of a threatened food supply for many Pacific Island countries and territories.

With few harvest restrictions in place and threats from onshore activities such as logging just coming to light, the Solomon Island Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) recognizes an increase in fishing pressure won’t be sustainable, with predictions that the country’s nutritional needs from reef fisheries won’t be met by 2030.

But subsistence alone isn’t driving the increased pressure on the reefs. Many people look at the reefs as an economic opportunity, providing the means to afford housing and school fees for their children. Ensuring a forward-thinking direction, MFMR sought to understand the effort and costs involved in getting a fish from the reef to the market, further underscoring the interwoven nature of the island’s ocean resources. This included looking for opportunities to increase efficiencies in the supply chain and reduce spoilage, making each fish go further. In cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), they began to hire surveyors to collect data in the marketplace.

Local Honiara fish vendor Kellington Simeon was one of the first to join the survey program as a coordinator. His studies in Information Technology at the University of the South Pacific have taught him that hard data can play a critical role in decision-making, and combined with his knowledge of the local market dynamic and various reef species, Simeon is able to fill a critical role on the team.

Picture of a reef fish vendor at a fish market

Surveyor Patrick Kekete interviews a reef fish vendor in the Honiara Central Market, Honiara, Solomon Islands using the older paper-based survey method. Photograph courtesy Tory Read/USAID CTSP.

With clipboard in hand, fellow surveyor Patrick Kekete wanders the Central Market in Honiara, Solomon Islands. He’s observing the types and sizes of reef fish being sold out of the large esky containers and asking vendors everything from where the fish came from to how much they are selling it for.

All of this data is handwritten on paper forms and submitted to the Ministry. En route these forms can be delayed or even misplaced before being entered into a computer. And as with any manual data entry process, consistency in data quality is always a potential issue.

Seeking a better and more reliable system, MFMR looked to mobile technology to shift the tide of data collection and processing. Through the CTSP program, MFMR partnered with a firm 6,000 miles away to collaborate on Hapi Fis (pronounced Happy Fish in English), a mobile app and web-based platform that streamlines the collection process and provides qualified data without the reams of paper.

Picture of reef fish vendor using mobile app

Patrick Kekete interviews a reef fish vendor at the Honiara Central Market using the Hapi Fis mobile app. Photograph courtesy Kellington Simeon/SI MFMR.

Soon Simeon and the surveyors walked the markets, smart phones in hand and spent time talking with the vendors and fisherman. The mobile phones drew onlookers and the surveyors were quick to capitalize on people’s curiosity.

Explaining the intentions of the Hapi Fis program, Simeon’s group was able to conduct interviews and seamlessly upload their data to a central database, where it is immediately aggregated and made available through the online dashboard to Ministry staff.

Like the old fishermen before them, MFMR can wisely use information to make more selective restrictions, potentially reducing unnecessary impacts on the fishermen. Rather than simply imposing catch limits for instance, they can now use market data to educate the fishermen and inform more finely tuned restrictions by size, spawning time, and location. They can then measure the effectiveness of these decisions by continuing to observe what comes through the markets.

Over time, informed harvest decisions can chart a persistent and balanced approach to managing dwindling resources that people depend on for food and economic security. Although traditional ecological knowledge may be fading, Simeon may be part of a mobile technology revolution that is bringing his community back in alignment with the old ways of managing the oceans.

Tim Welch leads the implementation of the Hapi Fis platform. He is a Technical Lead and Strategist at Point 97, an Ecotrust company, delivering technology solutions and engagement strategies for marine and coastal planning.