Something like three-quarters of the world's fishing grounds are being overfished—that is, fish are being taken out faster than they can be replenished by reproduction. And part of the problem is illegal fishing. It's not so much that laws don't exist to stop over-exploitation. It's that countries don't have the means to enforce the rules.
The West African nation of Ghana, for example, bans certain types of fishing in its waters. But it lacks the resources to police its coastline. So-called "pirate ships" and foreign trawlers have decimated its stocks. Across the region, an estimated a third of all fishing is carried out illegally.
Could mobile technology help fill the enforcement gap?
Perhaps says Matt Merrifield, a senior technologist at the Nature Conservancy, a conservation non-profit. He recently worked on a reporting app called ShipWatch as part of a "Fishackathon" organized by the U.S. State Department. And he was encouraged by the other ideas developed during the 36-hour weekend.
"The innovation is going to come when everyone has a location-aware phone and they're able to document these illegal activities and also what they're catching," he says. "When you're able submit the data and centralize it, it goes a long way to solving this problem. We haven't had the infrastructure in past."
ShipWatch was a response to a challenge set by the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program. It's a simple piece of software based around Instagram. Whenever someone sees what they think is questionable activity, they can take a picture, create a tag, and upload the incident to a central map.
"There are laws in place to say [the fishing] is illegal. The problem is they lack any kind of reporting mechanism. Our idea is to build out a little citizen science tool for any fisherman who's out there on water. They can take a photo and report these guys," Merrifield says.
Smaller, artisan fishers have an incentive to report illegal activity, as the trawlers are destroying their livelihood. They're also best placed to see what's going on—they're the ones at the sharp end every day.
Mapping the problem achieves two things, Merrifield says. First, it shows the world that it's happening, and where. Second, it potentially leads to more efficient enforcement. "It helps you visualize spatial patterns that may not be apparent to a single person. There may be hotspots of activity and it helps you be more strategic with your enforcement."
It could, for example, help create flight maps for drones, which many conservationists hope will lead to better management of fishing grounds and other endangered natural resources.
The Fishackathon took place in five U.S. cities, with the first held in Monterrey, California. The winner of that hack was a team from UC Berkeley's Information School, which developed an app called Fish DB. It, too, lets fishers report illegal activity, as well to register their boats and get fishing licenses.
It's probably over-optimistic to suggest smartphones can revive the world's fish grounds. But they surely have the potential to stop the most egregious offenses, helping enforce laws that do exist. That's a start at least.