Fishing for Sustainable Answers

As Covid-19 pushes demand for seafood traceability, how might new technologies support sustainable fisheries? Four experts weigh in.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

In a YouTube video, fishing boat captain Tim Field walks viewers through his scallop fishing vessel, The Venture. The camera follows him down a stairway as he introduces the electronic scale where the scallops are weighed, gathered in 50-pound bags, and tagged. Via satellite, the data associated with that tag, fed from the scale and other onboard software, will eventually be uploaded to the Food Trust, a digital record-keeping ledger. The tag, Field tells us, will travel with the scallops, accruing data every time the fish changes hands. The Venture’s parent fleet, Nordic Inc., is one of many seafood industry players rushing to deliver fish-sourcing transparency to consumers who increasingly demand it. For marketers at Raw Seafoods, the fish wholesaler who recruited Nordic Inc. into its Food Trust network, transparency is a scannable code on a restaurant menu that will track your meal, say, seared lemon-butter scallops, “from bait to plate.”

photo of fish market
The North American and EU seafood industry is now experimenting with diverse models for delivering traceability to consumers. Photo by John Walker.

While Covid-19 has stalled such restaurant transparency models, supermarket analysts try to figure out how the pandemic will impact consumer habits at the seafood counter. And they are recognizing that pandemic anxiety is actually driving increased demand for food traceability among American consumers. In turn, demand for scannable traceability is opening up opportunities for conservationists. Those working in seafood-dominated economies have been trying for years to convince the global seafood industry that better transparency brings higher value. Western markets already recognize that seafood is underselling its potential due to bad reputation – consumer trust has been shaken by stories of illegal fishing, over-fishing, indentured servitude, polluted waters, endangered species decimation, fraudulent labeling, and chemical adulteration.

The North American and EU seafood industry is now experimenting with diverse models for delivering traceability. As they evolve, experiments face two general hurdles, uniform record keeping (How do import records talk to trucking records talk to fish processing records talk to fishing boat records?) and data security.

For example, the Food Trust guarantees security by building its ledger on blockchain technology, which has well-established security cred as the backbone of bitcoin. Other models being tested include making fish supply chains fully vertical — one company owns everything from fishing boats to delivery systems, and invitational trusted-partner networks — such as the collaboration between Raw Seafoods, Nordic Inc., and The Venture.

Conservation groups encourage, aid, and watch these models in the hope that key fishing economies across the globe might adopt them. But on the industry end, these models must first demonstrate to developing fishing economies that transparency greatly increases product value. Luckily, with Covid-19 driving up concern for food health and safety, proof of transparency’s value is piling up.

For conservation-focused consumers, this is all good news. It gives them a chance to weigh in on traceability models and make purchase choices that support sustainable fisheries. But some questions remain on this end as well. For example, what information can we expect – or should we demand – from traceability technologies to ensure they’ll be useful in pushing for better conservation?

Earth Island Journal spoke with four experts from three conservation nonprofits currently leading global efforts to secure sustainable fisheries to sort out these questions. The four are:

Michele Kuruc, Vice President, Ocean Policy, World Wildlife Fund. Before joining WWF, Kuruc developed anti-IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing) programs for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and prosecuted IUU cases for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Dr. Peter J. Mous, Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara (YKAN), Indonesia Fisheries Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Mous works with artisanal fishers in projects that develop sustainable fisheries in Indonesia

Sayara Thurston, Seafood Fraud Campaigner, Oceana Canada. Thurston has worked with industry and government to improve animal protection policy, particularly across supply chains and labeling initiatives. And,

David Shorr, Senior Manager, Transparent Seas Project, WWF. Shorr’s work includes informing global regulatory systems on ways to enable and enforce sustainable fisheries.

Insights from these experts suggest that proactive consumers can push traceability tech’s evolution to support sustainable fisheries. Here are some takeaways:

1. Look for the fish’s scientific name and location of catch. Sustainable regulations are built on scientific data about a fish’s migratory and breeding patterns.

Michele Kuruc: We are very concerned about the legality of the product and focus on the types of data which are key to making that determination. For example, what species is it? Where exactly was it caught? When was it caught? What sort of gear was used? Did the vessel have authorization to catch this fish? Was the amount within the authorized allocation?

Peter Mous: One of the problems we have is the fish that get exported to the US, you can export them as snappers or you can export them with proper scientific name. If it is exported under the general name, snapper, there are at least 25 commercial snapper species. There are about 100 fish that are common in that species. They all mature at different sizes, and you cannot tell from a fillet [without the scientific name] if it is a mature fish or not.

2. Ask your traceability software to account for impactful life cycle issues (also dependent on species’ scientific name).

Peter Mous: What would really help is if consumers buy fish that have at least had one chance to reproduce. You can calculate it to fillet sizes – if the regulator demands that the fish is the right size according to species, if the consumer says, ‘I don’t really want to buy the small ones…’ At each step in the supply line, people can make that choice…If you attach the proper scientific name, even a supermarket can see if that fillet is likely to be from a juvenile; it has not had time for reproduction.

3. Before seafood’s QR marketing hits your mobile, look to the work of NGOs to inform your demand for sustainability-relevant data points.

David Shorr: The good news is that the seafood industry is making significant progress towards the goal of fully traceable supply chains through an initiative called the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST). … Through the recent release of the GDST 1.0 Standards, over 60 companies have helped create a universal checklist of the information that must accompany seafood products to help ensure legal harvest.

4. As a savvy traceability tech consumer, give feedback whenever possible, but choose your battles by thinking of the long game. Today’s realistic solutions remain a hybrid of low and high tech.

Sayara Thurston: Different tools will suit different fisheries and different business models – a small-scale, local fisher who sells their catch directly to a restaurant will have different needs than a company selling fish caught in the South Pacific and processed in multiple countries. The focus on interoperable systems, harmonized outcomes, and rigorous enforcement should be the constants of any traceability framework, regardless of the tools being used.

Michele Kuruc: With a distributed ledger, a blockchain network,… no single authority has control of the network because the information is spread across participants and smart contracts, which are computer codes within a blockchain network that automatically execute when certain conditions are met.

Blockchain networks could integrate with existing digital traceability systems and facilitate the exchange of data …but interoperability remains an issue, as there is still a lack of traceability standardization in seafood value chains…Most supply chains from the major exporting countries still are far from having fully digitized data collection systems.

David Shorr: Technical specifications for how systems can share that information seamlessly…are already being used by leading seafood supply chain companies, including some of the world’s biggest seafood processors, brand owners, and retailers.

Peter Mous: In the field, I do not see the immediate applicability [of blockchain technology]…[in] the beginning of the supply line, there’s a lot of scribbling on paper, and it’s little bits of fish that get aggregated in a trader’s backyard, and a trader moves it on to a slightly larger trader, and that person moves it on to a processor, and only at that point is it suitable for blockchain technology.

These middlemen [traders] do have an important role. You get a batch of fish, you split it up according to size, quality. Pooling is that you bring two batches together that have similar characteristics… The economy is really quite informal. How can you actually digitize it in a way that makes sense for these traders and fishers? Asking them to punch in numbers to a touch screen, I don’t see it working. A smart phone is something you use behind your desk. It’s not a great tool on a dirty beach or the deck of a boat. (Mous’ project currently gathers key fisheries data by incentivizing fishers to take pictures of every fish they catch. In the images, fish are set against a measuring board provided by Mous’ team, thus standardizing measurement.)

5. Keep informed of developments in the fish processing sector, and complement your high-tech interaction with low-tech activism.

Peter Mous: Digital traceability still relies on the integrity and capability of processors to apply and redistribute tags as fish get pooled, graded, and cut in portions along the supply line. It would not be too difficult…[for fish processors] to mix in similar portions of other fish [with the sustainable, tagged fish]….This constant process of pooling and grading is a real challenge for this kind of “pedigree” traceability systems – “pedigree” because the concept is that the product’s history stays with the product along the supply chain.

Michele Kuruc: Effective traceability for combatting illegal practices is less dependent on the distribution of the digital ledger, but more on the accuracy and validity of the data being shared…The [fish] processing sector is notoriously opaque and has largely moved to countries where there is cheaper labor and often less oversight. Many facilities still receive and process seafood that has been caught illegally. So increasing the pressure on countries where these processing plants operate … is key to complement the efforts made by some major market states to demand that information.

The push from governments, especially the import controls established in the EU [Catch Certification Scheme (CCS), 2008)] and US [Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), 2016] … is definitely helping to put some pressure on the industry.

ThisFish is one example of a consumer-focused traceability system designed to allow consumers to connect directly with the fishermen who caught their fish. Their traceability system consists of an online data management tool, unique codes for each seafood product, and the development of standards to which all products must adhere.

Sayara Thurston: When buying seafood, buying a whole fish reduces the risk of mislabeling. Asking questions about the fish, shopping locally and seasonally from sustainable suppliers, and being wary of fish that seems cheaper than it should are all things that consumers can do.

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