Turning the tide: IoT renews hope for the future of island fisheries.

Three Business Blog Team
On: 3 Oct 2019
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Fishing Arranmore

When you live on an island, fishing is more than just a job. It’s a tradition that’s handed down through the generations; so woven into the fabric of life that it’s as much about heritage, culture and community as it is a way of earning a living. On Arranmore island, that tradition had declined in recent years. Now Seamus Bonner of Arranmore Community Council explains how fishermen, through their partnership with Three, are applying the latest technology to revive their fishing industry and in the process are garnering attention from other island communities around the world.

The old Irish saying ‘a good start is half the work’ is especially true in Arranmore’s case. When the island’s fishing groups first gathered together in 2017 to talk through the challenges they faced, the potential technology solutions that emerged were rooted in practical use cases.

Take the case of crab fishermen, who sometimes set out as early as 4am and don’t return until after 10pm that night. The haul on a larger fishing boat can be worth several thousand euro, and the crew need to store their catch aboard in the best possible condition to sell on their return.

Before, the fishermen used to rely on a visual check to monitor the water flow through the crab tank; now, IoT sensors installed at the pumps into and out of the tanks will be able to check that everything is working normally. If there’s a problem with either sensor, it will trigger an alert and the fisherman gets an SMS message to check the source.

IoT solving a valuable challenge.

As Seamus points out, technology works best when it’s solving a real need, rather than a clever solution in search of a problem. “We asked the fishermen what the main issues were, and they told us. So the technology was adapted to that, rather than the other way around. We didn’t do it for the sake of doing it. The technology has to work… If it works and makes their job easier, the fishermen are very open to taking technology on board.”

Another occupational hazard for fishermen is when their lobster and crab pots move from their original location, either due to storm or from larger boats dragging them in their wake. Without a way of tracking the pots, fishermen often risked losing expensive equipment. Now, a new geo-fencing system for smart buoys means that if the pots move outside a predefined area, the fishermen get an SMS that provides the new location. This helps them to track their pots and avoid having to bear the cost and effort to replace them.

For fishermen at sea by themselves in smaller boats, Arranmore is also piloting a ‘lone worker’ backup safety system that someone can use to send a distress signal to the coastguard.

Traceability app ensures fairer prices for fishermen.

Another technical solution being trialled on Arranmore is a system that’s adapted from Abalobi, a traceability app for fishermen that was developed in Africa. It lets fishermen sell their catch directly to consumers or restaurants via an online marketplace – “from hook to cook”, as the app website says. This ensures the catch doesn’t need to travel as far, since buyers can pick up the goods at the port and eat the produce at its freshest.

“The idea we have is to keep the supply chains short, trying to keep the seafood available on the island and keep continuity of supply,” says Seamus. “The app lets a consumer choose what communities they want to support, such as Inishbofin, Tory Island or Arranmore. So today, they might want to buy fish from a person fishing off a particular island.” This is good for consumers, who can buy local and it’s good for fishermen because it gives them better certainty over the price they can get for their haul. Arranmore will be the first to trial Abalobi in Europe.

Sustaining a small island community.

Technology is the lever, but it’s enabling something much more fundamental: sustaining an island population and a way of life. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s helping to secure a future for small-scale fisheries that, just a few years ago, looked precarious. Little wonder that it’s attracted so much interest from other island groups who see fresh hope for their way of life.

Other fishing areas along Ireland’s Atlantic coast are watching the various pilots and looking forward to seeing the results. The story has also attracted the interest of small island communities such as in Scotland and in Sweden, where Seamus has spoken about Arranmore’s recent developments. This month, a delegation travelled from Busan, South Korea to Donegal to learn more about how they too could apply technology to reverse a decline in their local fishing industry.

“It’s early days yet, we’re just starting to move ahead with the practical implementation of the solutions, but there is a lot of interest and it’s heartening,” reports Seamus. The positive feedback is building its own momentum back on the island. “The technology makes their day-to-day lives a bit easier – the fishermen are a bit more hopeful about the future,” he says.

Maintaining island life.

These innovative solutions only work with reliable connectivity – something Arranmore didn’t have until its partnership with Three. Arranmore’s connectivity also makes remote working on the island a real possibility, which will allow its residents to combine fishing – which tends to be seasonal and part-time – with another job, without needing to leave as they would in the past. “It gives you the quality of life and flexibility to be able to stay on Arranmore,” says Seamus.

He adds that it’s not all about an economic motive; island ways of life are included under the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. “There’s a lot of knowledge and culture passed on from people making their living on the sea. It’s the island life that’s going to be maintained and that information is going to be passed on, as younger people come into the industry. We are at the very early stage of it, but the tide is beginning to turn with solutions like this. It makes people think ‘I could do that, and it means I might not have to move away’.”

If you are interested in learning more about how innovative use of technology is sustaining Arranmore’s fishing industry – Seamus Bonner and local fisherman Jerry Early recently recorded An Eye on Irish Industry podcast with Three’s Head of SME Padraig Sheerin. The podcast is available on Three’s Business Learning Centre.