The Philippine fishery sector provides 1.6 million jobs for Filipinos, including many coastal low-income families. These families rely on municipal or smallscale fisheries as their primary source of income and subsistence. Despite the abundant opportunities offered by the sea, poverty remains prevalent in the fishery sector, with a 31 percent poverty incidence rate in 2021, the highest among all sectors according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Poverty in the sector is influenced by several factors, including limited access to financial resources, fishing equipment, market, and information systems. While the proximity to the Pacific Ocean presents vast opportunities with its diverse commercial fish, it also poses challenges due to typhoons and unpredictable weather conditions, which hinder fishing activities and endanger the lives of fisherfolk.

Weather challenges faced by fisherfolk

Located along the typhoon belt in the Pacific, each year, the country is visited by an average of 20 typhoons every year, five of which are destructive, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Center. This is in addition to frequent rainfalls brought by the easterlies or the winds coming from the east bringing humid weather.

The fishing community lacks sufficient means to access weather information, which could warn them of unforeseen phenomena such as strong rains and winds. Consequently, reports of missing fishers and other casualties have been prevalent in the country.

More than 300 Filipinos fishing in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean were reported missing after losing contact for a week when Typhoon Bopha hit the country in 2012. The typhoon made it difficult for the fishers to navigate the rough seas going home until they lost their way and ran out of fuel.

In 2017, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) rescued 71 Tawi-tawi fishers when 26 fishing boats were swept by big waves brought by Storm Vinta passing through the Mindanao peninsula. After the rescue, survivors and the PCG claimed that several fisherfolk were caught up in the storm, and some of them were still missing.

In a more recent event in November 2023, four fishers who were reported missing for two days were rescued by the PCG. This happened when the fisher’s boat sank due to bad weather conditions in Pangasinan.

These were just a few examples of occurrences that demonstrate how extreme weather affects the income and lives of Filipino fishing communities. Initiatives and interventions are needed to help the fisherfolk navigate the seas, which will also contribute to the development of the Philippine economic status.

Putting ISDApp in action

The rise of technology and the mobile phone revolution have popularized the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in enhancing information dissemination and science communication within agri-fishery communities.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) has implemented several programs to optimize the use of ICT to improve access to information of farmers and fishers. Among these include Farmer’s Contact Center that provides farm advisories, and Philippine Rice Information System (PriSM) that allows farmers to access data on seasonal changes and pests and disease outbreaks, among others.

In 2018, iNON IT Solutions developed ISDApp as their winning entry to the NASA Space Apps Challenge, becoming the first Filipino team to be awarded the Global Winner.

ISDApp — derived from the word “ISDA,” or fish in English, and “APP,” as the abbreviation for application — is the first community-managed application that aims to effectively communicate weather information to fisherfolk without smartphones and internet connections. This app works by collecting localized weather data, converting it to simplified weather forecasts, and sending it to the registered mobile numbers of fisherfolk.

The DA-National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (NFRDI) conducted the pilot testing and technology verification of ISDApp, which was powered by Globe Telecommunications in close collaboration with DA-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). It was launched in the municipalities of Sariaya, Quezon in January 2021; and in Dingalan, Aurora, in May 2021, starting with the provision of analog phones and Globe sim cards to the beneficiaries.

Collaborating closely with partners and local government units (LGUs), the fisherfolk beneficiaries were instructed on the functionality of ISDApp and enlightened on how it would impact their fishing activities through weather monitoring. In 2021, over 400 Sariaya and Dingalan fisherfolk were trained in using ISDApp.

Evaluating the functionality of ISDApp

A few months after the distribution, DA-NFRDI revisited the municipalities to assess the effectiveness and accuracy of the application to fisherfolk-beneficiaries. A Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were conducted in the pilot sites in collaboration with BFAR 3 and 4A, and LGUs of Dingalan and Sariaya.

During the FGD in 2021, Dingalan and Sariaya fishers expressed their satisfaction with ISDApp and emphasized that it was user-friendly and provided consistent weather updates. The majority of the beneficiaries praised the invention of ISDApp and mentioned that it had effectively influenced their decision-making regarding their fishing activities.

Approximately two years later, NFRDI returned to the pilot sites to gauge ISDApp’s continued functionality among fisherfolk beneficiaries. Most of them claimed that ISDApp was still operating flawlessly and sending messages more than necessary. Fisherfolk highly appreciated the app’s accuracy in weather forecasting even after years of use.

Roland Bruce, one of the beneficiaries in Sariaya, commended ISDApp for its assistance in monitoring the weather even without the use of the internet. He added that it was reliable, which is crucial for ensuring their safety out in the ocean.

“Updated yung ISDApp magbigay ng information na chinecheck ko po bago pumalaot,” said Christian Lirio during the Dingalan FGD in February 2024.

Beneficiaries also highlighted the ease of registration to the app and its simplified weather advisories, which are typically presented in a complex manner on websites and applications that are difficult for fishermen to understand. It ensures that the weather updates and advisories forwarded to the users are simplified and easy to understand.

Rowena Baliton, a beneficiary’s housewife, attested to the app’s consistent delivery of precise weather information, which serves as a valuable tool in determining the optimal timing for her husband’s fishing endeavors throughout the day.

“Accurate naman po ang pagbigay sa akin ng weather information. Pag sinabi po (ng ISDApp) na sasama ang panahon, sumasama naman po talaga ang panahon. Hindi na po ako papalaot,” said Lino Boy Gonzales of Dingalan, Aurora.

Mina Dicen, municipal agriculturist of Dingalan, Aurora, expressed her gratitude for choosing their area as one of ISDApp’s pilot sites. “Nagpapasalamat kami na na-involve ang Dingalan sa ISDApp dahil dito nagkaroon ng pagkakataon ang aming mga mangingisda na maging ligtas sa kanilang paglalayag kasi bago sila lumaot ay meron na silang impormasyon sa pamamagitan ng kanilang mga cellphone,” she concluded.

Challenges and user’s insights

During pilot test and technology verification, one of the main objectives of the project was to determine the application’s interface for improvement to maximize its utility. Feedback from the beneficiaries highlighted several key recommendations, including expanding ISDApp’s features to include data on wind strength, wave heights, and time of sunset and sunrise.

It was also recommended to extend the range of receiving updates from ISDApp so that fisherfolk could still receive crucial updates even if they are actively fishing out at sea. This would be helpful in case unforeseen weather disturbances occur, giving fisherfolk time to return to shore.

The responses were affirmative when beneficiaries were asked if ISDApp is recommendable to other fishing communities that have not yet used the application. They were positive that the application would be effective and could ensure safety among fisherfolk around the country.

Given the current challenges faced by the fishing community regarding weather disturbances, accompanied by the rising demand for sustenance in the country, fisherfolk need assistance and guidance from the government to strengthen and empower them. The results of the pilot test revealed the necessity of improving ISDApp to ensure its effectiveness and enable fisherfolk nationwide to navigate safely through the Philippine oceans.

NFRDI is committed to address these challenges and include recommendations made by the beneficiaries to make ISDApp available to every fisher. The app not only helps in ensuring the safety of fisherfolk in the ocean but it could also contribute to the overall food and livelihood security of the country. It represents a significant advancement in providing accessible weather information, gearing towards the empowerment of Filipino fisherfolk. (Vanessa Mae Escaño)