ROME, Italy -- It's a pleasant late-autumn day in Swakopmund, Namibia. Eight young Namibian scientists cluster around a computer showing a graphic of a coastline. Large areas shaded green or red show the extent of exploitation for specific fish species.

A month later, the computer is in Jinja, Uganda, and the 20 scientists are Ugandan, Kenyan and Tanzanian. This time, the graphic is of nearby Lake Victoria and the shaded areas show high densities of an alien species. Both graphics were made from fisheries data collected earlier at both locations and input to a geographic information system (GIS). The scientists are participants in a course run by FAO's inland fisheries staff on GIS use in fisheries management and planning.

Worldwide, inland capture fisheries account for 15 per cent of global fisheries production - 8.2 million tonnes in 1999, over 90 percent of it in developing countries. However, accurate data are hard to get, which hinders effective management. Indeed, after local surveys, the Mekong River Commission has unofficially revised its figure for the Mekong basin from 300 000 tonnes to 1.2 million tonnes after including small-scale and family fishing.

GIS greatly improves the management and use of data. The term GIS describes any set-up that integrates computer hardware, software, data and personnel in order to analyse, display and report information. It uses information that is 'georeferenced' - that is, collected from a known location, so that it can be collated with other types of data that also come from an exact point. Thus researchers can study fish stocks together with fishing levels, pollution, water temperature or other factors - seeing quickly how they might be interrelated. The software runs on an ordinary desktop computer.

The courses took place in well-chosen locations. Tanzania and Uganda are in the world's top 10 for inland capture fisheries production - largely because of Lake Victoria, of which they have 49 and 45 percent in area respectively (Kenya has 6 percent). And in Namibia, despite its arid image, inland subsistence fisheries support about 10 percent of the population - mostly on the Okavango River.

The courses aimed to teach participants to use a GIS as easily as they would use a spreadsheet or word-processor. They also:

  • demonstrated the vast possibilities GIS offers in fisheries management
  • showed that strong GIS capacity could help countries implement FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which is designed to ensure sustainable fishing
  • helped field-test a new manual on GIS use in fisheries prepared by two FAO scientists and a colleague from the Dutch-based Nefisco Foundation.

"All participants with more than five years computing experience can use the manual with minimal assistance," says FAO's Josť Aguilar-Manjarrez, one of the three authors (with Felix Marttin of FAO, who helped run the course, and Gertjan de Graaf of Nefisco). "However, an instructor can provide valuable support and guidance, which was exactly the sort of thing we wanted to learn from this test."

How can it help?

"If catches were falling and we suspected pollution was the cause, we could display catch and pollution datasets together on-screen," says Mr Aguilar-Manjarrez. "If there were a clear correlation between the two, or none at all, we would know whether we were right or not. But GIS is even more useful with partial correlations - because we can instantly incorporate other factors and search for a subtler reason."

GIS can also make better use of scarce resources. For example, Namibia has a vast coastline (1 700 km) and only two boats and one aircraft to monitor the fishing fleet. But the fleet has to report the time and place of its catch when it lands it. These can be plotted using a GIS and correlated with weather or other data so that the next year, the expected position of the fleet can be predicted - and the boats and plane need spend less time searching.

Creative thinking - and hidden hippos

Course participants brought their own data, and there was some creative thinking on how a GIS might exploit it. One Ugandan scientist suggested relating data on sexual maturity of fish to habitats, fishing pressure and socio-economic information. This could reveal why fish are or are not reaching the breeding stage. Other participants at Jinja suggested integrating data on the water hyacinth, an alien pest that consumes oxygen and hides hippos, a danger for fishers. Another use will be to map the relationship between alien Nile perch and indigenous species.

FAO is now looking at how GIS courses might figure in its support to fisheries management, for example by helping countries implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Technical assistance in using GIS could be offered, and researchers could swap data online.

"It isn't always understood just how many people in the developing world depend on inland fisheries," says Mr Aguilar-Manjarrez. "Good management of this resource is crucial to food security. And it can't be done unless scientists can see what is really happening to the fish."

The course in Namibia was hosted by the National Marine Information and Research Centre, Swakopmund, with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The Uganda course was hosted by the Ugandan Fisheries Resources Research Institute and the EU-funded Lake Victoria Fisheries Resources Project.