Hacking—Not Phishing—for Fish: Coders Worldwide Tackle Global Ocean Crisis

Laptops, coffee, and sleeping bags in tow, programmers gathered over the weekend to develop apps for sustainable fishing.

Georgia Tech coder team at Fishackathon. (Photo: Fishackathon/Twitter)

Jun 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amber Dance is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She has contributed to publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and PNAS Front Matter.

As the sun set over Long Beach Harbor Friday night, an unlikely crowd trickled through the entrance to the Aquarium of the Pacific. Instead of kiddos and cameras, they toted laptops and sleeping bags.

They gathered around daisy-chained power strips for a weekend of hacking—coding, not code breaking. The Southern California programmers were part of the Fishackathon, a worldwide marathon event with a dozen locations, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jakarta, Indonesia, to Santiago, Chile. Their mission: spend two days and nights developing phone apps and other technology that would help keep the ocean’s fish supply plentiful.

Of the world’s 7 billion people, about 20 percent depend heavily on fish for food—and, of course, many others enjoy seafood regularly. Of those meals, a full half are fished not by large commercial operations but by small-scale fishers, many in the developing world. Those fishers face serious problems, says Thomas Debass of the U.S. State Department, which organized the Fishackathon.

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“The key problem is overfishing,” Debass says. “They’re fishing to the bottom of the sea.” That means not only less surf in your surf-and-turf dinner but a loss of livelihood for the fishers, which leads to poverty. Other issues include polluted waters and illegal fishing in protected waters.

Fishackathon winners in Long Beach, California. From left: Felix Kastner, Martin Lang, Whitney Foster, and Daniel Romero. (Photo: Evan Phelan)

Technology could help track fish populations and illegal fishing. Smartphones are spreading throughout the developing world, giving governments and fishers a new tool. The State Department created the Fishackathon in 2014 and continued it this year to kick-start the creation of relevant apps. Debass expected hundreds of hackers to attend one of 2015’s events around the globe.

Fishackers can tackle any of 24 challenges with mobile apps, websites, or other technology. For example, the World Wildlife Fund has asked for a tool that gathers all the laws and regulations about fishing in the Indian Ocean. Port inspectors in countries such as Mozambique and Pakistan could use such a tool to identify and seize illegal catches.

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In another challenge, the foundation Humanity United seeks a technological tool—hardware or software—to monitor the working conditions of migrant fishers in Thailand’s seas. Many of these workers are exploited, and keeping tabs on crew lists and conditions on board could help keep shipowners accountable.

But can they accomplish all this in one weekend? Martin Lang, an organizer and hacker at the Long Beach Fishackathon, was confident his team would come up with a prototype app and website to identify hot spots of illegal fishing, using photos and locations collected by users out on the water. His team later went on to win the local competition and are now global finalists.

“Hackathons are a different kind of universe,” says Lisa Mae Brunson, founder of Wonder Women Tech and a judge and organizer at the Long Beach event. “The excitement, the creativity, the level of visionary work happening—it’s surreal.” The Fishackathon may be more surreal than most, with coders settled in alongside critters like octopuses and eels that come out at night.

Judges will select two winning teams from all participating cities, to be announced in July. The prize: all-expense-paid trips to showcase their technology. One team will attend the Our Ocean Conference in Santiago in the fall, and the other will head for Barcelona, Spain, for the Mobile World Congress in early 2016. Several organizations that offered challenges have also promised to follow up with any hackers who address their requests.

So two caffeine-fueled nights could be the first step toward more sustainable fishing. “It’s vital we use our brains to create powerful technology to clean up our oceans, create sustainable fishing, and overall help the planet,” says Brunson.

Read more about the fight to save the world’s oceans in our "Blue Planet" series.