Dr Greg Duggan, Strategic Projects & Support Lead Abalobi ICT4FISHERIES NPC (ABALOBI)
Ms Josheena Naggea, PhD Candidate at Stanford University
Dr Catherine Ward, Environmental Sustainability Consultant
In this article, Greg Duggan, Josheena Naggea and Catherine Ward present the first stage of a project to unlock the potential of artisanal fishery in Mauritius through the integration of three technologies that have the potential to improve the value chain, increase safety at sea and improve traceability. Through a participatory and co-design approach to the project, the authors show the potential of these technologies in supporting the often marginalised artisanal fishing communities as well as encouraging sustainability by focusing on the health and resilience of local social-ecological systems.
A Fishy Conundrum
For many communities along the Mauritian coastline, artisanal fishing forms an integral part of local livelihoods and culture. The Mauritian artisanal fishery is the primary source of fresh fish supplied to the local market and also provides employment within coastal regions, contributing to food security and poverty reduction .
Artisanal fishers, who fish within or near lagoon areas, come from mostly marginalised communities at the forefront of climate change, threatened by coastal erosion, rising sea-levels and cyclones. Further, coastal habitats of Mauritius, such as lagoons and coral reefs, have increasingly degraded in recent decades due to human activities associated with overfishing, agricultural run-off and urban pollution. The production of the artisanal fishery has therefore steadily decreased over the last decade, despite an increase in total fish consumption in Mauritius.
This fragile artisanal fishery is heavily impacted by the persisting outbreak of COVID-19 since early 2020, which has paralysed the tourism industry (further diminishing market and employment opportunities for artisanal fishers) and reduced the spending power of local consumers (decreasing the customer base of artisanal fishers). The impact of the catastrophic 2020 Wakashio oil spill has added more stressors on affected coastal communities in the south-east of Mauritius – resulting in environmental devastation, livelihood loss for artisanal fishers, and serious health implications from the 1000 tonnes of oil that leaked into local lagoons.
In the past, the Mauritian government has responded to the plight of the artisanal fishery by introducing compensation schemes for bad weather days or encouraging alternative livelihoods such as off-lagoon fishing and aquaculture. However, these measures have historically faced implementation challenges, with missed opportunities to engage with the rich artisanal fishery heritage of the island. Only registered artisanal fishers benefit from government schemes, such as compensation measures rolled out during sea closures due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and the subsequent oil spill in 2020. However, there is also a largely unrecognised informal sector within the artisanal fishery – revolving around subsistence activities involving women, who remain marginalised with limited opportunity to be officially registered.
Exploring Opportunities in a Sea of Challenges
The potential of artisanal fisheries can be unlocked through tapping into local markets that support artisanal livelihoods and sustainable fishing practices. To explore challenges and opportunities within this sector, Market Evolution for Small-scale Fisheries in Africa (MESA) is a collaborative, international discovery phase research project that laid the groundwork for future collaborations with artisanal fishers to enhance their financial inclusion and visibility in the Mauritian seafood sector.
Under Innovate UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Demonstrate Impact in Developing Countries Programme, the MESA Discovery Phase Project was conducted in Mauritius from November 2020 until April 2021. As illustrated below, the concept tested was based on the integration of three existing South African and United Kingdom developed technologies and approaches:
- ABALOBI’s Hook to Cook platform, comprising of the Fisher catch and expense logging smartphone application (that allows fishers to digitally log their catches and expenses, and access real time sea state and forecasting data) and digital Marketplace system (that connects fishers directly to markets and consumers);
- Stone Three Communications’ AngelFish small vessel tracking and safety transponder device; and
- exactEarth Europe’s exactTrax/exactSeNS satellite data communication and vessel tracking services.
Selected artisanal fisher communities, fishmongers, and seafood consumers (both private individuals and commercial representatives from the hospitality sector) took part in this project to explore and co-design this integrated digital solution. Market needs were also assessed for both greater sustainability and food and livelihood security. Fisher communities were represented by three artisanal fisher cooperatives from the north, east and south-east of Mauritius. All participants gave their insights into challenges and opportunities in the local seafood market, while giving inputs on how best to design a digital platform that can be used in the Mauritian context. Research was conducted via a series of training sessions for Mauritian research teams, workshops for fisher and consumer participants, virtual platforms for fishmonger participants, and individual meetings with government stakeholders.
Strengthening Value Chains
Key challenges highlighted by participants included limited resources and training available to fishers, difficult market access, and a lack of sufficient cold chain capacity – including a lack of consumer trust in the current cold chain system. The need for improved value chain traceability was emphasized, including the need to build trust and market connections between artisanal fishers, fishmongers, and consumers. The Hook to Cook concept has been very successful in addressing similar concerns in the South African context and is embraced by small-scale fishers and the restaurant market alike, with similar pilot projects successfully underway in Seychelles. The MESA Project demonstrated a strong desire and market readiness for the overall Hook to Cook concept among Mauritian artisanal fishers, fishmongers, and consumers.
ABALOBI’s flagship Fisher smartphone application is very adaptable and can be easily configured to meet the unique requirements of the Mauritian context and language, allowing fishers to keep a record of fish caught and associated expenses (such as fuel, bait and other costs) per trip. Throughout the workshops, Mauritian fishers were enthusiastic about logging their catches and expenses to create a digital record that could potentially give them a way to apply for financial products such as bank loans and government fishing loans. In light of the recent Wakashio oil spill, participants also raised the value of this application in dealing with future oil spills or environmental disasters. As an example of this, fishers suggested they would benefit from logging their catches in the application as this digital record could help prove their work in future claims against oil spills and other environmental disasters.
Enhancing Safety at Sea
Tied to this, fishers voiced a strong desire for improved catch traceability and safety of life at sea – functions provided by the AngelFish device and associated satellite communication and vessel tracking services. Due to the Wakashio oil spill, many fishers have been forced to fish further offshore, placing them at risk of increased exposure to wind and waves. Many of these fishers do not carry satellite devices and have traditionally relied on landmarks to identify their position. Fishing further offshore requires enhanced safety of life at sea and most fishers welcomed the AngelFish device both for its safety at sea component and the associated traceability functions. Fishers were excited by the Fisher smartphone application’s weather forecasting functionality, suggesting that in combination with the AngelFish device, this would greatly improve their planning and safety at sea.
Fishing for Traceability
Both commercial and home consumers highlighted the importance of the story of the fish and fisher, placing value on the Hook to Cook concept. There is a strong desire from consumers to directly access local seafood sourced from a robust, traceable cold chain. ABALOBI’s digital Marketplace platform and associated traceability, cold-chain and quality control protocols can address concerns of customer trust in the cold chain. However, further work will need to be done to overcome stigmas and stereotypes identified by participants. This digital platform also provides opportunities to integrate with cashless payment options (examples may include Juice by Mauritius Commercial Bank or My.t money) as a way for both fishers and customers to track their payments. Importantly, this digital Marketplace can be configured to include fishmongers, given their trusted position in this value chain and intimate knowledge of local fishing communities, purchasing and selling practices, and distribution with associated cold chains.
Minding the Gender Gap
The persistent marginalised status and lack of recognition of women’s roles in this sector remains a significant challenge. While fishing activities have become more accessible to women over time, most of their activities remain limited to maintaining fishing equipment, cleaning, sales (and associated logistics) and/or gleaning (i.e., the collection of shellfish) – largely for subsistence purposes. Women fishers are therefore not properly remunerated, and their work remains informal and unrecognised. Further research is required on how best to tailor these digital platforms to address their unique position and needs in the fishery.
Changing with the Tides
Within the Republic of Mauritius, fisheries is considered a priority sector as it provides an important source of income and nutrition – given their pivotal role in food security and livelihood creation, artisanal fishers should not be excluded from this important sector. Reimagining the artisanal fishery in Mauritius from the fish in the sea to the fish on your plate (and everything in between) is possible, as unequivocally demonstrated through the MESA Project. Using participatory and co-design approaches was vital for the MESA Project to encourage future buy-in from fishers, fishmongers and consumers as stakeholders should form an integral part of the creation process from the beginning. Gaining insights into challenges and opportunities from a diverse range of participants ensures that the digital applications and platforms can be configured to fit the local context. The Hook to Cook concept, supported by these digital applications/platforms and their accompanying traceability technologies, can offer elegant, locally relevant solutions to the dwindling artisanal fishery of Mauritius. This initiative is an important step towards encouraging sustainability by focusing on the health and resilience of local social-ecological systems, rather than exploiting far-away resources at the expense of local livelihoods.
The authors would like to give special thanks to the participating fishing communities for giving their invaluable contributions to this research. We would also like to deeply thank all the other participants for their time and important contributions. The authors would like to express their deep appreciation to the supporting Mauritian research partners, with special thanks to Patrick Fortuno, Vishnu Soondron, Michael Didier and Ali Haydar (through the Fédération des Pêcheurs Artisans de l’Océan Indien); Karen Woomed-Petit (SoCha Ltd) and Amandine de Rosnay (Dynamia Associates & Developers Ltd). Finally, a special thank you to the project partners ABALOBI, Stone Three Communications and exactEarth Europe for their support and funding from Innovate UK.
Main photo: Artisanal fisher boat in the lagoon at Trou-aux-Biches, Mauritius (photo taken by Catherine Ward)
The Charles Telfair Centre is non-profit, independent and non-partisan, and takes no specific position. All opinions are those of the authors/contributors only.