Global Fishing Index

Case StudY

Big data transforming small-scale fisheries: a new reporting system in Timor-Leste

by Dr Alex Tilley, WorldFish

It is safe to say that with better information, you can make better decisions – and that is particularly true of the world’s small-scale fisheries. This sector provides vital food and livelihoods for billions of people, yet very little information exists on where the millions of fishers go or what they catch. If the sector is to be sustainably and equitably managed, good data are crucial.

PeskAAS is a digital reporting system that collects, analyses and displays data from small-scale fisheries in Timor-Leste in near real time1. It was designed in collaboration with fishers and government officials to support science-based decision making, which is critical to local food security.

The name PeskAAS comes from the word for fisheries (peskas) in Tetum, the national language of Timor-Leste, combined with Automated Analytics System (AAS).

Central to the system was the fitting of 500 fishing vessels with solar-powered tracking devices, which recorded where fishers went and how long they spent at different fishing sites. Upon landing, the fishers are met by trained community members, who record their catches using smartphones and tablets. The data are then uploaded and published on an online, open-access dashboard the same day.

The results have had a huge impact on fisheries management and led to Timor-Leste reporting an accurate estimate of the national catch to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2020, the first since 2001. Program findings contributed to the drafting of a new national fisheries strategy and revisions to the country’s fisheries law in 2019. The same year, the Timorese government officially adopted PeskAAS, placing it among the most sophisticated national monitoring systems for small-scale fisheries in the world.

This system has brought new insights into fishing patterns, the effects of fishing methods on production levels, and the lives of those who depend on fishing in the country. It has also supported a deeper understanding of the health of the country’s marine ecosystems and what might constitute sustainable levels of catch.

The challenges associated with the project were substantial: the work spans the country’s 25 dialects, with the names of fish species often varying from one fishing community to another. Literacy is low in fishing communities, meaning that it was challenging to describe the advantages of such a system to potential participants.

To overcome this issue, we approached the communities one-by-one and held discussions with them in partnership with the Department of Fisheries – as a result, we were able to gain a better understanding of the fishers’ needs, and show how such a tool could help them. Involving fishers in the design of PeskAAS highlighted the need and mechanism for frequent feedback via municipal fisheries officers, which also helped establish local acceptance.

As a result, the vast majority of fishers were happy to share information about where they fished, what they caught, and their earnings. They were also happy for the tracking devices to be installed on their boats.

We also worked hard to ensure the National Fisheries Directorate were involved. When the project started, the work of the Directorate was limited mainly to administrative tasks, such as the registration of fishing boats. There was limited understanding of the opportunities for better fisheries management and very little useful data. The team spent time explaining the importance of robust, reliable data, and how it could support national priorities on tackling food insecurity and improving nutrition.

Through these discussions, it quickly became clear that estimates of fish production in the country were based on little more than the number of registered fishing vessels. It meant that one of the early successes of PeskAAS was in providing a more accurate estimate of the national catch. This, in turn, provided decision makers with a clearer idea of what needed to be done to meet targets for national fish consumption, and how the gap could be plugged by the country’s nascent aquaculture sector.

PeskAAS continues to evolve in Timor-Leste, with a particular focus on improving fisher involvement and use. Our next goal, in response to feedback from local fishers, is to develop a personalised ‘fisher module’ that will provide fishers with a way of tracking their own activities – for example, providing a platform for them to log expenditure on inputs like ice, bait and fuel, as a way of better understanding profit margins, checking market prices for different fish species, and monitoring earnings. This project is already underway in Malaysia, prior to deployment at other sites.

PeskAAS is open source and was designed to be highly adaptable to new geographies and fisheries contexts – pilot studies are already underway in Asia and Africa. The team hopes this work will bring new understanding to small-scale fisheries globally and support a range of co-management options.

We hope to expand PeskAAS to include fish traders and consumers, and more informal and poorly documented fisheries such as gleaning, both of which tend to be dominated by women but for which very little data currently exists.2 These advances aim to empower fishers to make more informed decisions about where, what, and when to fish, while supporting the co-management of fisheries in partnership with government.

This work is led by WorldFish and Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. It is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH). The pilot project in Timor-Leste was funded by The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta, and developed further under two Inspire Challenge awards from the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, in partnership with Pelagic Data Systems.


  1. Tilley, A., Dos Reis Lopes, J. and Wilkinson, S.P. (2020). PeskAAS: A near-real-time, open-source monitoring and analytics system for small-scale fisheries, PLOS ONE 15, (11), p. e0234760, [10 November 2021]
  2. Tilley, A., Burgos, A., Duarte, A., dos Reis Lopes, J., Eriksson, H. and Mills, D. (2021). Contribution of women’s fisheries substantial, but overlooked, in Timor-Leste, AMBIO 50, (1), pp. 113-124, [10 November 2021]

Alexander Tilley
Senior Scientist, WorldFish

Alex Tilley’s research focuses on understanding how better data can lead to improved food systems and livelihoods in aquatic systems developing and testing digital reporting systems and automatic analytics to obtain reliable near-real time data for adaptive management and empowerment of small-scale fishers in the blue economy. Alex has been engaged in small-scale fisheries and marine research since 2006 in Mozambique, Belize, Turks & Caicos Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Myanmar, Cambodia and Timor-Leste. He joined WorldFish in early 2016 following a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution. He has a PhD in Marine Biology from Bangor University based on fish movement and trophic ecology.