IIn recent weeks, a new $ 50 million (£ 35 million) hybrid boat set sail from Mauritius and headed to the Southern Ocean, where the crew will spend three months longline fishing for Patagonian toothfish. By the time the fish is returned, processed, and shipped to customers, consumers will know where and when that specific fish was caught, what vessel landed it, who processed it, and what certifications have been met. The technology that enables this is blockchain.
“From the day it lands until it ends up on someone’s plate, blockchain provides traceability to toothfish from the start,” says Steve Paku, Captain of Cape Arkona. “The people can scan the barcode and the whole story is there in front of them. “
Blockchain is just one way that fisheries are trying to ensure better traceability from hook to plate, but it is generating a lot of interest. Blockchain cannot be tampered with and data is accessible to everyone in the supply chain, from certification schemes to the end consumer. Because it is digital, decentralized, and updated in real time, a blockchain tag contains valuable information that a physical tag never could. In combination with DNA testing to test specific species of fish, blockchain could play a role in reducing fraud in the fishing industry.
This is also important from a conservation perspective. More than a third of fish stocks are overexploited, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Ensuring where and how a fish has been caught can help ensure that the catch has been made in an area with sustainable fish populations. It can also help address the problem of bycatch. In the degradation of marine ecosystems, bycatch is detrimental to biodiversity and puts additional and unnecessary pressure on marine wildlife. Young fish are caught in nets with too small a mesh, turtles and dolphins can become entangled in gillnets, and seabirds, including the endangered albatross, are injured by hooks unless deterrents are put in place .
Paku has fished for 35 years, first crayfish off the coast of New Zealand and, since 1997, toothfish, sometimes in the midst of 15-meter waves and 50-knot winds (90 km / h). Two years ago, the company he works for, Austral Fisheries, introduced blockchain technology, which according to Paku has just become part of the process. “When we catch the fish, we remove the head, tail and fins, then a digital tag is placed on the trunk of each fish before it is frozen on board. Blockchain supports fish traceability more substantially; I think this will become the norm in the future. “
Since the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, there has been growing concern about whether seafood can ever be certified as truly sustainable. But blockchain advocates argue that it has already been used to highlight suspicious findings in some high-value seafood supply chains. In 2016, UK traceability platform Provenance piloted blockchain in the supply chains of yellowfin and skipjack tuna loins, tracing products back to individual fishermen in Indonesia. WWF-New Zealand used blockchain in a tuna longline fishery in Fiji in 2018, while Sustainable Shrimp Partnership in Ecuador links data on farmed shrimp to a blockchain platform managed by the IBM Food Trust.
According to David Carter, CEO of Austral Fisheries in Perth, blockchain is an additional layer of accountability that enables continuous monitoring rather than random verification audits. “We want to achieve transparency in the cheapest and most profitable way possible. MSC certification could be much easier in the future, ”says Carter. “We could get to a point where we publish our scoring criteria.”
Carter works with OpenSC, a Sydney-based software company, to verify, track and share data that provides reassurance to consumers and regulators on where each toothfish has been caught. “Arguably where a boat is fishing is the most important statement to verify for seafood caught by line. A dishonest captain cannot change the fishing spots that have been registered with the blockchain. Nobody can, ”says Markus Mutz, CEO of OpenSC, co-founded by WWF and startup BCG Digital Ventures.
“We are not trying to replace a certification scheme,” he adds. “We think we can be a great complement.” OpenSC’s mission is not to make a judgment on whether a product is sustainable or not – they provide the database as proof that something is happening and then it is up to others to judge. “Certification can be quite binary, but in reality sustainability is not clear. Everything is on a scale. “
MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] The certification, the leading label for sustainable fish that involves observing 28 performance indicators, was criticized last year in a report by the French NGO Bloom. It found that 83% of the MSC-certified catches between 2009 and 2017 involved harmful fishing methods, such as trawling and deep-sea bottom dredging. MSC argues that the sustainability of a fishery is not determined only by its size or fishing gear, and that even large commercial fisheries should be able to apply for certification to improve the management of fish stocks on a global scale.
“Blockchain has proven to be an exciting way to track digital data in some pilot case studies, such as Austral and OpenSC’s significant work on toothfish,” says Natalie Hunter, director of supply chain development at MSC. “However, certification standards like the MSC are not just about data, but about practices and processes that ensure sustainable collection and effective labeling to eliminate fraud. Technology will support and enhance certification, but it can never replace robust, independently audited certification schemes like the MSC. “
FAO Traceability Expert Petter Olsen believes that while the complexities of the seafood supply chain make it suitable for blockchain, it is not scalable or commercially viable across the industry.
“Blockchain works for high-value products where the consumer can pay a little more for that guarantee, and I think we will see QR codes or barcodes on more special interest products,” says Olsen. But he believes that the potential of blockchain has been exaggerated. “It’s immutable, so changes will always be tracked, but it’s just a database.”
Recent Guardian investigation found that seafood fraud is prevalent on a “large global scale,” with 36% of seafood sampled in mislabeled supermarkets, fishmongers and restaurants. But Olsen argues that sometimes, rather than outright fraud, it can be a naming issue. “Common fish names like sardines or anchovies mean different things in different countries,” says Olsen. “Seafood has the longest supply chain of any food product, with an average of seven stages from capture or cultivation to consumer, so it is complicated but also geographically complex with people speaking different languages.”
“Consistent data is gold,” says Libby Woodhatch, CEO of the Marin Trust, the international marine ingredients certification program. “There are many different blockchain systems used in the seafood processing and fishing industry, but they all need to be interoperable to ensure the same level of information can be provided from start to finish.”
WWF has set out to address that, launching the Global dialogue on traceability of seafood in 2017 “dedicated to drafting the first global standards for the traceability of seafood”.
While it will not by itself eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing or prevent overfishing, blockchain will “profoundly modify” the way fish are tracked, according to a FAO report. The authors suggest that the technology could be better used by fisheries that voluntarily want to demonstrate legal compliance to meet consumer demand and improve trade, and that this can develop even in places where legislation is lacking.
Carter, as an early adopter, is hopeful. “Fishing is a long-term game. Real value is measured directly by the well-being of the resource we depend on and how adept we are at harvesting and selling it. Anything we do that damages that is just plain silly. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism