Department Website featuring our winning fisheries data application

Link here

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 4.14.30 PM


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.


Finalist in the State Department #OurOceans2014 Conference Fish Hackathon

Here is the link to our site: link

Here is the link to a video about our tool: link

Here is the actual State Department #OurOceans2014 presentation, we go on at (~3:53) link




Coastal & Marine Resource Management and teaching international courses abroad for MIT

January is IAP at MIT (Independent Activities Period). Most people work on research, submit papers, or take a crazy class they would not otherwise do. In IAP 2014, my advisor asked me to TA his practicum course that brought 15 masters students to Malaysia. Since MIT signed a 5 year agreement with the Malaysian government and the Malaysian University of Technology (UTM), we will bring a practicum there annually.

My specific duties drew on my prior Malaysian fieldwork in coastal planning, shoreline management, and natural resource management of fish stocks and mangroves. I was assigned one of the breakout research teams, spending the final week in Johor Bahru, looking at how mangrove management occurs at the southernmost point of mainland Asia as well as fisheries management.


Shoreline planning document

Johor has three Ramsar sites. This is remarkable, as it also is undergoing major port expansion, which typically means mangrove deforestation and the dredging of seagrass beds. Johor on the other hand is balancing its rich environmental assets with the need for development, especially with its cutting edge planning agency IRDA (Iskandar Regional Development Authority).

One of the major highlights was when I got to spend a day walking along (sometimes illegally!) shoreline management projects, coastal development ventures, illegal mangrove deforestation sites, and mangrove forests with Dan Friess from NUS‘ Mangrove Lab.


Kukup mangrove island

The MIT masters students came up with some interesting research questions on shoreline planning, optimization for livelihood and conservation, and governance of the Ramsar sites’ mangroves and fisheries.

As a TA, challenges were obvious. Balancing the needs of my students with the needs of our gracious Malaysian hosts and colleagues was stressful, as were cultural differences in scheduling and planning. All in all, the students passed my greatest expectations and I look forward to TA’ing the practicum next year, with a new field site in Sabah, Borneo’s large marine protected area.


Tanjung Piai National Park mangroves

The highlight of the fieldwork included several visits to villages that I had done some research in over the summer. This included Kong Kong Laut Fishing Village. We spoke for hours with women crabbers and shrimpers, the people working on floating fish farms, and the head of the village’s wife. We discussed fisheries management, water quality downgrades following nearby chemical plant expansion, and the stake that villagers hold in large scale coastal developments in industry.


Showing off her fishing skills

Mangrove tourism advertisement Iskandar Regional Development Agency (IRDA)

Mangrove tourism advertisement Iskandar Regional Development Agency (IRDA)

My esteemed friend at IRDA, Tok Muharam, used our picture from a recent trip to Kong Kong Laut fishing village, a village working on creating an economy for sustainable eco tourism in their mangroves, and floating fishing farms. We are on the right. Very interesting work going on at IRDA in mangrove management and fisheries in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Many thanks to Tok Muharam Parlie for including me in this flyer!

Destroying mangroves to create livelihoods: policy narratives versus reality

It’s no secret at this point that fish stocks are declining thanks to massive ground trawlers and other impossible technologies that strip the seas bare, coupled with toothless fisheries management regimes that set allowable catch at quantities far too high.  To make up for dwindling fisheries, aquaculture is now the new darling of multilateral donors.  It is the fastest growing food production industry in the US, growth that is matched on a global scale.  It is a win-win for the World Bank since it encourages both production and natural resource management in private hands, as well as a focus on exporting the final product.

What exactly goes on in these aquaculture schemes?

First, mangrove forests are felled in order to make way for shrimp-farm ponds such as these:


Farmers  fill these ponds with large, densely populated populations of shrimp.  Farmers can increase the food source, plankton, by adding fertilizers and antibiotics to their ponds.  Salty water, without the buffer created by mangrove forests, encroaches onto the land, so that crops that border on aquacultural enterprises begin to fail.  Native fish stocks are adversely effected by cloudy water with hyper-concentrated amounts of rotting shrimp, waste, antibiotics, and chemicals.

The Environmental Justice Institute values mangroves at $1-36,000 USD per hectare, versus $200 USD on a hectare of shrimping aquaculture.

Mangrove ecosystems deliver  services to people that include: serving as a nursery for countless commercially important fish stocks, prawns, and crabs; they are natural filtration systems, soaking up toxic pollution (heavy metals) and excess nutrients (sewage); they stabilize the coastline by allowing soil to accumulate, they protect sea grass beds and coral reefs through this process; they absorb 70-90% of wind swell that hits coastal areas, and take storm surge down by one foot for every three feet of mangrove forest; they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and store it in sediment; they also are sources of firewood and construction wood.

Social dynamics of Aquaculture in mangrove forested areas

Armitage’s work points out that when aquaculture-based development projects are financed, it is often the previously well-connected elites, or government officials who receive the major benefits, while the poorest members of the local population lose out.  The poorest people live closer to the mangroves and depend on them more directly for food, fire fuel, and construction materials.  When trees are felled for aquaculture, these questions are left unresolved, while a few elites profit.

Policy narratives contribute to the continuation of so-called development projects that actually only benefit a few.  Policy narratives are the stories that political elites tell about a resource in order to implement their political agenda.  In this example, common-property holdings of mangroves were said to be a source of environmental degradation.  They were “swamp wastelands” where aquaculture could improve lives and livelihoods.  Since nobody owns the mangroves nobody was motivated to keep it in a healthy state. The solution was to partition the mangrove land off, and allow the owners to start up aquacultural operations destined for export markets.  This was heralded as a success, as many farmers were now were cashing in on a productive economic venture.  But the reality on the ground was vastly different from the reality created in a policy narrative.

In reality, the pollution and oversalinization results from shrimp farming, coupled with the dramatic loss of ecosystem services provided by mangroves.  The short-sighted nature of these aquacultural ventures trade cash exports for the long term value of a mangrove forest.  The polluting effects are not paid for or cleaned up by farmers, and again, the poorest most immediate residents suffer the consequences.  Fish stocks that used to inhabit the area collapse, pollution is no longer filtered, the coast is no longer buffered from storms.