Swedish fish go digital

How an elegant, open source solution is helping secure the future of Swedish fisheries — and offering a blueprint for other fisheries in Europe to follow

It’s Summer solstice in Sweden. For once, the North Sea is smooth as glass. Fisherman of 35 years, Peter Rönelov Olsson, scans the water.

To be a good skipper, you need intuition,” he says. “Everything depends on the phase of the moon, the time of year, the air pressure… you have to analyze everything to know where to go.”

Fisherman of 35 years, Peter Olsson

But the sea can be a capricious mistress and, Olsson would admit, intuition sometimes fails. You could be trawling for crayfish, and accidentally haul in a net of cod.

This causes a problem. Fisheries are governed by strict quotas, handed down by the European Union. Exceed a given quota — even by mistake — and you risk a ban.

Now Swedish fishing regulators, with the help of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and in close collaboration with Swedish fishermen, have come up with a solution. When fishermen pull in an unexpected catch, or sail too close to their quota ceiling, they now have a purpose-built digital platform through which they can purchase, or trade, quota allocations with other vessels.

The system, known as FishRight, provides fishermen with at-a-glance data on quota allocations, annual balances and any trades they have made. It also gives regulators a clear picture of how the industry is operating within the quota system. Developed on an open source platform, the system is now available for adoption by other fisheries across Europe.

In October, fisherman Niklas Lundgren traded for cod quota using FishRight, allowing him to cover his catch without exceeding tight quota limits designed to secure the sustainability of this iconic species. “It’s simple to use and it gives us more chances to comply with the rules,” he says.

Timing is everything

FishRight comes at a critical time as an upcoming change in EU regulations is threatening to upend fisheries across Europe.

Historically, some fisheries have sought to comply with quota rules by discarding excess catch, often already dead, back into the sea. It is a practise which undermines the quota system goal of keeping fish mortality at a sustainable level. The influential Fish Fight campaign estimates that in some parts of Europe, discards have been as high as 50% of catch. Now, in the most radical change to EU fisheries policy in a generation, the EU has introduced a ban on discards. Due to come into full effect in January 2019, the ban states that whether a catch exceeds quota or not, everything that is caught must be brought ashore. Fisheries that fail to comply, face strict censure.

See more of Celia Topping’s photos documenting Sweden’s fishing industry here.

The discard ban is a good thing for healthy stocks,” says Olsson, who is also head of Sweden’s largest fishermen’s organisation, SFPO. “Of course it is not sustainable fishing to throw dead fish back into the sea. But coupled with the quota system, it created a situation where it was impossible to follow the rules. FishRight is the only thing that works. It lets fisherman follow the law, be profitable and take care of the resources in the sea.”

Like many elegant technological solutions, FishRight’s simplicity belies the complex, laborious — and often distinctly non-technological — machinations that went into establishing it. The adoption of FishRight came about following three years of intense meetings, facilitated with EDF’s help, between the Swedish fishing industry and its regulators. This painstaking process resulted in a step change in the way quota is allocated in Sweden, from small amounts allocated on a weekly use-it-or-lose-it basis, to one larger annual allocation. This hard won change gave fisherman better control over when they fish and cleared the way to allow FishRight to happen.

Beyond Sweden’s borders

Unfortunately, not all European countries have been so proactive at anticipating the discard ban.

Sweden is like the good child at the front of the classroom asking for more homework,” says Olsson. “Other countries are at the back of the class with their feet on the desk. Some aren’t even in the room.”

Olsson is now hoping the results of Sweden’s work will inspire other countries to act.

In July, he presented Sweden’s approach to the European Commission.

We will not tell our colleagues in Europe what to do but I want to show them what we did and I hope it will inspire them,” he says. “To be more selective, more careful with our resources — that’s absolutely the right thing to do. But you can’t change an industry overnight. You have to start slowly and let the industry adapt. And you have to make systems that are possible to live by.”

You can see an entire photo gallery of Sweden’s fishing industry and its innovation here.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave