Tracing Fish and Finances

Turning a catch data app into a life-changing tool for fishers

  • S.H. Irby
August 22, 2017

We have to junk it. Steve Box was sure of it.

It was 2013 at the Centre for Marine Studies in Honduras. Dr. Steve Box and George Stoyle were working on the first version of OurFish, a smartphone app Steve conceived to help small-scale fishing communities more easily record and understand their catch data. They hoped that OurFish would provide an efficient and pocket-friendly alternative to a slow-moving and often neglected norm: writing data down in notebooks, digitizing it, creating special databases to collate the information, and eventually interpreting it — all in separate steps broken up by delays of months or even years. But Steve and George soon realized that their approach to building OurFish 1.0 was all wrong.

Steve had hired a Honduran contractor to code the app on an Apple iOS platform, just as coastal communities were starting to adopt Android as their operating system of choice. And the app itself wasn’t built with the right perspective. “It was built essentially to answer our scientific curiosity,” says Steve. “And it failed, absolutely miserably, for some really simple things. It wasn’t user-friendly. It had so many assumptions built into it. It was trying to collect too much information, and it didn’t solve the users’ problems.”

Steve and George had been approaching OurFish as scientists, which resulted in a visually clunky and unintuitive tool. As Steve admits, “we really hadn’t put enough thought into the user base.” So Steve thanked their contractor for the work completed, paid for OurFish 1.0, and summarily scrapped it. “We went back to the drawing board, and built OurFish 2.0 based on everything we knew the first one couldn’t do.”

The tool that emerged was a data-light, user-friendly app attuned to local language and literacy issues and adaptable to the diversity of activity among fishing communities. Two years on, the app is proving pivotal for understanding small-scale fisheries and providing the information to underpin decision-making. Now, as Rare’s Vice President of Global Fishery Solutions, Steve Box is fine-tuning the app once more. This time, he hopes to use OurFish to help fishers develop something entirely new to them, and potentially life-changing: a financially-resilient future.


The Road to OurFish

Like most stories of innovation, Steve and George’s journey creating the OurFish app began with a problem: small-scale fisheries catch data was extremely difficult to track, and fishing communities were suffering for it in many different ways.

Incomplete and inaccurate data collection is a notorious issue in fisheries everywhere. It’s a monster with many arms, as data can slip from global statistics in all kinds of ways. Catch can be unintentionally or intentionally misreported across different fishing sectors. The growing global black market can put a huge dent in fish stocks worldwide, and much of that catch data isn’t captured. And impactful sectors like small-scale fishing, hidden in the massive shadow of industrial fishing, are trapped in a cycle of disregard as “unimportant” to global fish catch statistics and fisheries decision-making.

It’s this problem that OurFish eventually came to address: the invisibility of small-scale fisheries — often referred to as the “forgotten fisheries.” While some countries have begun to step up and prioritize data collection in industrial fishing, small-scale fisheries are still far behind.

In these fisheries, concentrated largely on the coasts of the developing world, fishers are catching relatively small amounts of fish destined mainly for local markets. Their gear is basic and their resources are limited, but their numbers are enormous, with 90 percent of the world’s fisher and fish worker population operating in small-scale fishing, and about half of the world’s total fish catch coming from these fishers. Stack them up, and their impact on catch statistics is massive — if measured fully.

The decentralized, informal nature of small-scale fishing is key to its obscurity, Steve Box explains. Industrial fisheries are big, busy, and often provide hard currency via exports. They create hubs of commercial activity and use port infrastructure designed to handle big boats and large packaging and processing operations. “They’re an obvious priority,” says Steve. Small-scale fisheries, by contrast, are scattered in remote and rural coastal communities, where government involvement may be low. “Governments haven’t historically invested in collecting information on small-scale fishing, so there’s never really information on how big it is,” says Steve. “You end up with a big gap in your knowledge. And because there’s a big gap, it never becomes a priority. You just make assumptions — oh, it’s small-scale, it’s artisanal — all of these essentially diminutive words that suggest it’s not important.”

A “vicious cycle” ensues, as Steve describes it. Small-scale fisheries aren’t as immediately visible as clusters on a map or as commercial centers, so they’re often treated as invisible within the greater national — and international — fisheries dialogue. As long as the true size and impact of small-scale fishing goes without measure or demonstration, they stay small in the eyes of institutions that could send help.

Without the full picture of what and how much they’re catching, small-scale fishing communities will have difficulty managing their fisheries sustainably. Steve Box began to better understand the effects of missing catch data on small-scale fishers while studying reef fisheries in Honduras. He joined fishers on their small boats to collect samples for his research, while they fished and shared their stories. Those stories often involved the same events: fish stocks were shrinking. In once abundant waters, the fishery was in decline while overfishing was on the rise, and there wasn’t enough information on catch to figure out what was happening or what to do about it.

Steve knew he wanted to help fishers and managers fill their need for catch data, but the OurFish app didn’t come about instantly.

“There was a long road, to get here,” says Steve. It started with a series of observations of conditions in small-scale fisheries. Steve looked at the norms for recording fish catch and the many bottlenecks that slowed up the process of getting information back to fishers to use. He looked at the cost and manpower it took to send enumerators into multiple communities. He also looked at what was working: at landing sites, where fishers would bring in their catch from the day, he noticed that buyers were already regularly recording information about their transactions. Unlike a lot of fishers, they were writing things down all the time.

Steve and George began to think through the OurFish app with these considerations in mind. OurFish was a tool intended for use fromwithin the fishing community, so through multiple rounds of testing and reworking with input from local people and local organizations — and after the OurFish 1.0 flop — they came up with features highly customized to fishing communities.

Photo: Sergio Izquierdo/ILCP

How does OurFish work now? The app links fishers to a registration system, so that catch can be connected to the person fishing. As seen in Honduras, where OurFish was first implemented, the app works with fisher registration cards that fishers obtain when they register with their local fisheries management department. When fishers head out and come back each day, OurFish scans their ID information from QR codes on the back of their registration cards and associates collected catch data with their ID. The app records the transaction when the fisher sells the catch to a community buyer, capturing data on the fish being sold as well as transaction data such as weight, count and price. From there, collation occurs instantly through cell phone networks, into a central database powered by cloud-based computing.

OurFish operates on an Android platform, the more common cell and tablet system among its target users. It’s easy to navigate as it’s based on icons and images, and it’s easily adaptable to any language and literacy rate. It was designed to be simple, to mirror the way fish purchases were being recorded by buyers in fishing communities. The steps are modeled off the way Steve and his team saw buyers recording data in notebooks. “Instead of coming in and saying, you now need to adjust the way you collect data to fit this system, the system adjusts to the way people operate,” says Steve.

Steve and George are now working on the data literacy side of the app. The data is already analyzed automatically, but the key is to now determine the way the information is transmitted back and presented to fishers, fish buyers and the wider community involved in managing local fishers. “We’re looking at how to provide the interpretation that users need, and then display it in a way that’s useful to people in that space — buyers and fishers,” says Steve. Starting with an online “data dashboard” to visualize information and present different formats, he’ll convene focus groups of different users to give feedback on what works for them. “We have to be very aware of this. People have different relationships and experiences with data, and need information presented in different ways to make it directly useful from their perspective,” says Steve.

OurFish is currently in use in Honduras, Belize, Myanmar, and as a small pilot in Indonesia. Steve plans to roll it out in Mozambique and other countries where Rare works. He believes the app will shine when its use is sustained and scaled. When multiple communities in a country start using OurFish, they can begin to connect the dots, to see how changes in fish stocks and catch in their waters fit into wider trends across a shared seascape. “Communities we work with can start linking together all of the data for an area — maybe a municipality, maybe multiple municipalities, maybe across a whole province or set of provinces,” says Steve. “Then you can see what’s really going on in terms of pressure on a specific fish as well as how those fisheries are responding to management actions.”

Fishing communities can use that information to make smart, sustainable management decisions for their fisheries. And by making a more accurate understanding of the size of small-scale fisheries available to governments — OurFish’s outputs are accessible to government agencies and other fishery stakeholders — fishers, their communities, and the occupation they’ve counted on for generations can also be counted in national policymaking.


To me, the power of data is in people understanding and using it. It isn’t just the ability to collect, it’s to help people use information to drive decision-making.

Dr. Steve Box, Senior Vice President, Fish Forever, Rare


What’s Next for OurFish

For Steve, the app’s potential doesn’t end with sustainable resource management. Looking ahead, the aim is to provide fishers with more opportunities to manage their finances as well. “People have always looked at fishing issues from the perspective of the fish — how do we improve value, how do we decrease costs and improve efficiency, how do we create new products and new market chains,” says Steve. “That’s all great, and we need that. But we’ve overlooked the obvious: these are all owner-operated businesses, household enterprises, small and micro-enterprises. Community-based fisheries are a network of community-based businesses. The tools that have helped the rural economy in agriculture or other productive sectors can be applied to small-scale fishing, to really help people lift their way out of poverty and the problems created by the lack of access to financial services.”

Steve aims to embed a payment mechanism in OurFish that allows users to electronically transfer funds in selling and buying fish, and in the process have their transactions digitally recorded. For small-scale fishing communities, having digital evidence of income or expenses would be a first, and totally transformative. Small-scale fisheries function as informal economies, where cash often flows between people without a paper trail. As such, they aren’t set up for formal debt, equity and other financial mechanisms that are standard in developed countries like the U.S. “When you take out a loan, they look at your income, and your ability to pay that into the future is based on being able to prove your financial history,” says Steve. “Fishers can’t do that right now, so they’re left open to predatory financial operations similar to ‘payday loans,’ often connected to their future catch and often with no clear way of working how much that loan is actually costing,” says Steve.

With a financial history in hand, the opportunities for fishers expand, including “savings and insurance, and all of these tools that enable people to both retain and build wealth,” says Steve. Fishers can begin to make longer-term plans in managing their finances. As many will be doing so for the first time, the second component of Rare’s upcoming work with OurFish will involve providing communities with awareness and education about financial management — which, Steve explains, can be achieved using Rare’s core behavior change expertise in social marketing campaigns at the local level.

As Steve and his team builds out the app’s data presentation features and chase the chance to help fishers trace not only fish catch, but finances, they won’t be striving for perfection — at least not at first. “We embrace failure,” he says. “Actually, the data dashboard that George has spent a large proportion of his time building — the whole reason we’re building it is so we can destroy it. Well, not destroy it — but so that people can react to it. Tell us what they don’t like about it, what they need it to do that it can’t, so we can make it better. That’s how we can make this really work for the people who need it.”