Can Mobile Tech Revive the Bay Area Fishing Industry?

The march of history has a funny way of obscuring our view of the past. We tend to think that the way things are now means that is how they always were. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are so ingrained in our minds as hallmarks of technological advancement that when we hear those place-names, we think of sleek and shiny designs and advanced mobile tech. We tend not to think about the past.

But, of course, the Bay Area wasn’t always known for its progressivism and technological savvy. It was a port city, bringing in the world’s goods, an opening to the Pacific for successive empires, including the American republic. It was a port city, with all the crime and degradation that goes along with such a distinguished moniker (the best book that I know of for that is Herbert Asbury’s Barbary Coast). And through it all, it was still, of course, a fishing town. That’s been destroyed through pollution, over-fishing, and general mismanagement, but mobile technology – the same industry that has, in popular imagination, relegated fishing to a sepia footnote – might help to revivify a quintessential, if forgotten, part of the Bay Area economy.

Boats in SF bay
Can mobile tech save the San Francisco Bay’s fishing industry?

The Self-Inflicted Decline of Commercial Fishing and the Attempts to Revive It

Of course, there is still fishing in San Francisco. A lot of it is charter, but there are still people who make their living through fishing. The problem is that it is very hit-and-miss, even more so than in most fishing communities. Without getting too deep into California’s water problems, upstream damming has hurt the number of fish getting into the ocean, and overfishing has decimated other stocks. It has gotten so bad that the federal government has frequently had to step in to ban fishing of certain species for a season or even more, in an attempt to replenish the stocks.

It’s kind of hard to blame fishermen for overfishing. For one thing, if one person is, it doesn’t make any sense for his neighbor not to follow. After all, it doesn’t pay to be the last noble person. The stocks would still be destroyed by everyone else. And it is hard to think about the future when you’re trying to feed your family today. We aren’t wired to think ahead very well. It isn’t that anyone was deliberately malicious, but rather, that was the nature of the industry. Regardless of blame, the stocks were ruined.

As people progressed, though, they realized that destroying the young population of the fishes they needed to catch when mature wasn’t the best long-term business plan, and started to loosely try to make a change. Regulations were instituted, like catch limits, age restrictions to make sure they were above reproductive age (for the fish, not the fisherman), and areas in which they could be caught at a certain time. The trick was to make sure that the catch didn’t interfere with the next generation. There was one problem, though, that was hard to overcome.

The ocean is really big.

Like, enormous. Think of something big, like a Mack truck, or Utah: the ocean has that beat really easily. That’s good for boats not crashing into each other, but bad for being able to globally coordinate efforts to ensure that fish populations weren’t being destroyed. Throw in language barriers and cultural differences, and it was nearly impossible to keep a strict regime of responsible fishing. It turns out, though, that this is one more area in which mobile technology can make a huge difference.

From Silicon Valley to Your Plate

For a long time, information about the population of fisheries and who caught what was transmitted by paper. You can see how this would be an inefficient method. By the time the data was even collated, it would be out of date. But now, it’s possible to get all that information out electronically, using tablets. Papua New Guinea is using Android tablets to harness all their information about fishing, in order to manage their stocks in a way that is both profitable and ecologically sustainable.

Now, Papua New Guinea is a long way from San Francisco and the Bay Area, but the technological means to replicate that are much closer. Using tablet and satellite technology, local, national, and international organizations would be able to coordinate with commercial fishing industries and independent fishers in order to protect the native populations and the business interests of those actually in the water. Its uses can include, but are not limited to:

  • Keeping track of stock caught, so that it can be balanced against a growing population
  • A more equitable way to distribute natural bounty – you know that you’re catching a proportionate amount of fish as a rival, reducing the compulsion to overfish to make sure you aren’t getting cheated
  • GPS tracking, so others can know where a mature population is, rather than potentially disrupting spawning fish
  • A far more cohesive look at the entirety of the ocean ecology

The Bay is what made San Francisco. Without the bay, there are no ships. The natural harvest of the ocean fed the city and allowed it to grow, helping to eventually form Silicon Valley, whose innovation has changed the world. In the face of such awe-inspiring technology, fishing may seem archaic, but it is still important. It is a fitting thing that today’s tech toys can help to save one of San Francisco’s most vital connections to its wooly past.

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