He Dreams in Data

Fisheries innovator Steve Box joins Rare as its new Vice President of Fish Forever

March 28, 2017

Dr. Stephen Box found his respect for the ocean at the age of six. While living in Jakarta with his parents, the family took a trip to Indonesia’s “Thousand Islands,” a chain of islands north of the capital. As he snorkeled through a reef, youthful curiosity propelled him further out. He kicked his fins through the water toward the drop-off, the point at which the comfort of coral shelter falls away over a steep cliff and the ocean’s deeper, darker waters beckon. As six-year-old Steve swam out over the cliff, an acute awareness of how very small he was came over him. “Those images of a spectacular shallow reef against the mysterious depths of the reef wall are seared into my memory,” says Steve. “I think I have loved being on and around coral reefs ever since.”

As he grew up, Steve formed an obsession with the ways the ocean’s many different worlds functioned and survived, fueling his work in coral reef research and eventually leading him to an interest in the fishing communities dependent on these ecosystems. This trajectory of evolving interests led Steve to Rare, where he now serves as the Vice President of Fish Forever. Before joining Rare, he had already begun to shake up strategies in marine conservation and small-scale fisheries sustainability, bringing research-based problem-solving and technological innovation to communities through the Smithsonian Institution. In Rare, Steve sees a critical and often overlooked element for taking science-driven solutions to success: a focus on people, and the power their decision-making holds in shaping the future of the environment.

From 2003 to 2007, Steve Box was conducting research in the Caribbean while receiving his PhD. He studied the fight that can take place between corals and algae underwater and the effects should the latter take over a reef. When herbivores like urchins and parrotfish eat algae, they keep its growth controlled — “kind of like having sheep, like grazing pressure keeping the grass short,” says Steve. After a mysterious disease wiped out many of the urchins eating algae on the reef and parrotfish were revealed to be overfished, nothing remained to keep algae growth in check. The result for corals: more difficulty reproducing, settling on the reef, and growing. “People generally prefer coral to algae, but life generally prefers coral to algae as well,” says Steve. “It builds structures and it builds reefs, whereas algae does not.”


We are closely connected to the world we live in, and conservation success can come from shaping human behavior at one end of the chain to cascade benefits down through the ecosystem.

Steve Box, Vice President of Fish Forever, Rare


Seeing the effects of the disappearance of algae-eating animals on reef life, Steve felt compelled to take a closer look at a larger, human source of the problem — overfishing — and what it would take to reverse its impact. “This journey up the food chain helped shape my approach to conservation in general,” says Steve. “We are closely connected to the world we live in, and conservation success can come from shaping human behavior at one end of the chain to cascade benefits down through the ecosystem.”

Inspired to find solutions, Steve began working more and more with local communities, decision-makers and politicians. After receiving his PhD, Steve studied the extent and scale of fishing activities in Honduras, in addition to their links to the economy and food security. In 2006, he started an NGO called the Centre for Marine Studies in Honduras, which applied fisheries and coral reef research to conservation among Honduran communities. “Working with communities, I wanted to understand how they relied on different natural resources, why fisheries functioned in the way they did, and how those activities could be shifted to reduce negative impacts,” he says. For Steve, this kind of work was all about “learning how to provide the right information, so people could make informed choices,” he says. “Using science to explain the consequences of different actions.”

As coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Conservation Program in Fort Pierce, Florida, he led a multi-disciplinary research group that used tools like habitat mapping, genetic and molecular analysis, and fisheries data to plan ecologically and socioeconomically beneficial marine reserves. In the course of this work, Steve and his team identified the need to address the staggering absence of reliable fish catch data, particularly among small-scale fishers in coastal communities.

Small-scale fishers catch for subsistence, sale in local markets, recreation and other non-commercial purposes. It’s been estimated that half of global catch for human consumption comes from small-scale fisheries, and the communities where such fishing takes place are some of the most dependent on fishing as a trade and food source. Historically, those communities, largely concentrated on the coasts of developing countries, have lacked low-cost, user-friendly means of tracking daily catch. Such data is essential to informing sustainable management — without it, communities, governments and conservationists trying to prevent fisheries decline are essentially working in the dark.

Steve Box and his team from the Smithsonian developed a digital tool to address the challenge. Called OurFish, it’s a reporting system that taps into something fishers already carry around — their phones. OurFish is an Android app that consolidates three important pieces of information: the person fishing, the fish species being caught, and from where the fish originate. Designed to work with fisher registration cards that fishers obtain when they register with their local fisheries management department, these apps quickly scan fishers’ information from QR codes on the back of their registration cards when they head out and come back in each day. When fishers come back with their catch, buyers weigh and identify fish stock and input the data into the system, which operates using cloud-based computing.


OurFish is an Android app that consolidates three important pieces of information: the person fishing, the fish species being caught, and from where the fish originate.


OurFish is now actively used in Myanmar and Honduras, and has just gone live in Palau. For Steve, the opportunities to use the information collected by OurFish are just as exciting as the app itself. “How do we integrate that into decision-making and behavior change?” he asks. “How do we use that information to project out what we think is going to happen in the future if people make change, so we can start using that information as a predictive tool?”

Next steps in using the app’s collected data will be guided by a sense of responsibility to small-scale fishing communities. In order to achieve sustainable fishing per Rare’s approach, these communities adopt managed access + marine reserves, a form of fisheries management that grants fishers exclusive rights to mapped-out access areas. The approach gives area management to communities, a difficult task without full knowledge of the state of the fishery. “How to provide them with the information they need to make good decisions, that’s been very difficult to do previously,” says Steve. “We can now do that by leveraging technology, and communication technology specifically. That’s the opportunity. We don’t just activate people and create a management body, but we can provide them with useful and user-friendly information. You don’t just get the information, you get it in a way that makes sense to you.”

Throughout his years in conducting tropical marine research and fisheries assessments in coastal communities as well as developing OurFish, Steve Box saw firsthand how conservation solutions must incorporate the needs and interests of the people meant to benefit from them. These days, he starts each project by going fishing with the local fishers. “Sitting in their boats, watching the way they work and listening to the stories they tell,” he says. Many of their stories reveal the same conflict: the risk inherent in relying on fishing in a time of widespread fisheries decline.


How to provide them with the information they need to make good decisions, that’s been very difficult to do previously. We can now do that by leveraging technology, and communication technology specifically.

Steve Box, Vice President of Fish Forever, Rare


In coastal fishing communities, “people have all the normal day-to-day issues that life brings us, but with a layer of uncertainty about the future that makes things even more complicated,” Steve says. “Not knowing how their income would change in the future, not being able to make long-term plans, never sure if when they went out that day, they would come back with nothing or something. Understanding that perspective became ingrained in how I look at developing conservation solutions. A focus on how to identify opportunities to reduce that uncertainty, how to work with humility and compassion, knowing that life is difficult and conservation action will often mean making difficult decisions for families and communities — as they decide to trade off short-term gains against long-term sustainability. It’s much easier said than done, especially if your uncertainty about what the future has in store has always been high.”

Rare makes it the organization’s mission to prioritize community perspectives and interests as a fundamental tenet of its conservation work. Steve was drawn to Rare by its singular expertise in behavior change within the field, and its decades of experience sourcing and working to understand the motivations behind environmentally-harmful human behaviors, while finding alternatives that reduce impact and connect nature-friendly solutions to community interests. “There is no other global program attempting to do what Rare is doing for small-scale fisheries,” Steve says. “The approach is unique, being so focused on people and behavior change at the core of all that it does. Many people develop conservation strategies. Enabling these ideas to be owned and adopted by communities and getting them to ‘stick’ takes this work to a whole new level.”

Steve has been leading Rare’s global fisheries program for only three months, but what he’s seen so far stokes his optimism about the future of small-scale fisheries conservation. “I think what’s been most surprising and encouraging is the level of engagement and buy-in both from the communities from local, regional and national governments,” he says. “We’re now seeing incredible momentum being built around solving small-scale fisheries problems.” He attributes Rare’s contribution to that momentum in large part to the global team he’s joined. “Our teams are incredibly committed to what they do,” Steve says. “That shines through when you talk to them, when you visit with them, when you go to the communities that they’re talking with, when you hear them talking about their work with other people. That’s incredible. That’s un-fake-able.”