MIT write-ups on our Department of State Fish Data contest entry CaptuRED

Last week, Iain Dunning and I created a tool for SE Asian communities to better manage their mangroves, fisheries, and costal ecosystems. Iain did the coding, and I the data compilation and conceptual framework.

Here is my department at MIT’s write up on the project:

  • Science Impact Collaborative news: Link
  • MIT EPP DUSP Home: Link

Here is an edited version of my presentation at Our Oceans 2014:

During the sustainable fisheries session at Our Oceans 2014, Dr. Sylvia Earle asked a poignant question that received a lot of audience attention: how can we better account for the non-consumption value of our global fisheries? In other words, nowadays we are able to assign a value to the fish we land and then sell at market, but what about the fish that we purposefully allow to remain in their fishery?

I would extend Dr. Earle’s question, and also ask how can we account for the non-consumption value of not only fisheries, but also the ecosystems that enable productive fisheries like coastal wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs? How can we balance poverty in developing countries with the need to earn an income from the blue economy? And How can we account for a mixed-use scenario where stakeholders purposefully take conservation measures and still readily extract from the fishery for income and livelihoods?

This type of accounting would give fisheries stakeholders a more complete picture of their local resource stock, that includes

1) use values for expanding effort

2) non-use values for conservation and

3) and overall, a more complete picture of human welfare.

What if we could design a tool that empowers fishery communities to account for non-consumption values and act on them through better-informed decision-making around their resource use? This is the main concept that underlays our tool, CaptuRED (can be seen at

CaptuRED is a tool we designed for small-hold aquaculture farmers in South and Southeast Asia who primarily farm prawns, shrimp, finfish, and mollusks. Aquaculture has proven itself as a method to enhance livelihoods and provide new opportunities for rural coast-dwellers in developing countries.  Despite its profound positive impact on economic wellbeing and poverty relief, there are significant environmental problems caused by aquaculture. Southeast Asian Aquaculturalists use the natural marine environment (mangroves, estuaries, lagoons, seagrass beds, and reefs) as sites for their ponds. Unfortunately, farmers have major economic incentive to use techniques that add undue stress on environmental and human health, including

  • large amounts of shrimp fecal waste and decomposition,
  • excess nurtification of the waters,
  • and perhaps most visible: the clearcutting of the local mangrove forest to make way for more aquaculture pens.
  • This means that most shrimp ponds can only last between 5 and 10 years

Small-scale farmers in Southeast Asia are often faced with a major decision that relates back to Dr. Earle’s question. Do I add more ponds now, and increase my income in the short term, or do I selectively add ponds, retain mangroves, resulting in fewer earnings now, but over a more long-run time frame?

How does CaptuRED help empower aquaculture communities to make more informed economic decisions?

Captured has two functions to accomplish this. First, in its planning section, we use data from over 60 published studies that quantify non-use value of habitats and local ecosystems to reveal the true costs and benefits to farmers over the long and short term. We have lived and worked extensively in aquacultural communities in Southeast Asia.Stakeholders there know that mangroves are valuable, but they often lament that it is impossible to know how valuable. Thus, shrimp pond expansion always tends to win when making development decisions.

In addition, many of these values studies lay behind pay walls, in Journals written in English, and are generally hard to find by those outside of the academic community. The planning function in CapTURED changes all of this. Stakeholders input specific attributes of their community, including location,specific species, desire for intensive or extensive pond form, average pond size, and total mangrove cover in their village. They can then view how their decisions change the DOLLAR value of their immediate ecosystem, leaving behind abstract notions of conservation.

Where do these dollar values come from?

  • Studies show that mangroves provide millions annually to coastal communities by sheltering them from coastal flooding and storm surge during tropical weather events. Mangroves also act as nursery habitat for every commercially critical fish species in SE asia. Lastly, and possibly hardest to see, they cycle nutrients and human waste, cleaning the local water supply.
  • The most critical innovation in this tool is that is moves the idea of “non-use value” into an easy to understand and easy to see concept. What was once really only accessible to researchers and decision-makers can be seen in the communities making decisions about resource use.

The second part of the tool allows stakeholders to collect, view, and share data on their specific farm. They register with the site via mobile device and input data from their own day-to-day use directly into an easy to use interface.

This includes

  • daily/weekly/or monthly feed usage
  • Energy usage in the form of electicity hours or diesel fuel
  • and a section where they can record daily outbreaks of disease including white spot and early mortality syndrome, which plague the pond farmers of SE Asia.

Once they submit their data, the following screen is a dashboard with everything mentioned above, but also with an alert screen, that informs the farmer of nearby diseases affecting farmers in a 20 km radius, as well as the real time market price data on price per kg of the species that they farm. CaptuRED empowers fishing communities with a more complete picture of their local resource stocks.

We have been asked directly by the Iskandar Regional Development Authority to trial our project with several villages in South Malaysia in August of 2014. These include Kong Kong Laut Fishing Village and Sungai Melayu Fishin Village. We are working with the NEAQ team to add more complexity to CaptuRED before the field tests, to account for things like:

  •  communities that rely on both aquaculture and small scale capture-based fisheries with hand nets and pole and line, as is common throughout SE Asia.
  • complex relationships between habitat and farming, such as valing shrimp farms that occur behind the mangrove line.