Seafood is a major source of nourishment, providing sustenance to billions of people worldwide. The seafood industry is among the world’s largest and oldest market sectors. It ranges from traditional fishing in open-water areas to inland aquaculture farming and recreational angling.
The industry is estimated to employ around 200 million people globally, generating some $80 billion annually. At the same time, it’s plagued by malpractices and poor management of fisheries. The three main forms of malpractice — overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and bycatch — destroy delicate marine habitats and distort competition.
Of those three malpractices, overfishing takes the biggest toll on marine life. It not only affects the seafood that we eat, but also creates imbalances in the marine ecosystem. About 90% of the world's fish species are currently considered to be fully fished or overexploited. The World Wildlife Federation has issued the grim warning that, if overfishing doesn’t stop, we will run out of seafood by 2048.
IUU fishing depletes fish stocks, affects the balance of the marine ecosystem and endangers the long-term survival of fisheries and local fishing communities. Fishing is illegal when done without authorization, against conservation measures or national laws. When unreported or misreported, it contravenes national laws. It’s unregulated if the fishing vessel has no nationality and the fishing activities destroy marine life. All told, losses due to IUU are estimated at around $36.4 billion annually worldwide.
Bycatch is the catching of unwanted species while fishing for a particular species of fish. Other marine species accidentally hook onto the bait or tangle in the fishing nets. Bycatch puts the population of other marine life at immense risk. It causes 300,000 whales, dolphins and seals to die every year.
To counteract these malpractices, demand for sustainable seafood has been on the rise globally. According to the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Safety, "Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations in meeting their own needs." Sustainability becomes of vital importance as we harvest 90% of our fish stocks at full capacity.
From time to time, seafood companies make sustainability claims concerning their products and environmental benefits. Traditionally, these claims were supposedly backed by seafood audits, but only a small sample of suppliers was actually audited. This has led to a considerable amount of “greenwashing” — making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Due to ever-increasing consumer awareness and the need for validation of sustainable practices, seafood traceability has become of paramount importance.
Seafood traceability verifies the authenticity of the food item from point of origin, and validates the sustainability efforts of the producer. Yet industry malpractices such as mislabeling and illegal fishing continue to take place on a large scale. Seafood suppliers often fail to provide adequate information concerning the origin of the seafood. Recently, however, exposure by the media of reporting loopholes in the food industry have served to increase public awareness of the problem.
Certification programs set requirements for seafood stakeholders to act sustainably. Here are a few certification bodies that mandate seafood traceability within the supply chain:
The Marine Stewardship Council is an independent, non-profit organization whose primary aim is to place the seafood market on a sustainable basis by reversing the decline in fish stocks, improving the marine ecosystem, and securing fishermen's livelihood. The council has developed two standards, one for fisheries assessment (MSC fisheries) and the other for processors and exporters (MSC Chain of Custody). The MSC recognizes and rewards sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and works with partners to make the market sustainable.
The Food Alliance commenced its sustainability standard for farmed shellfish in 2010. The Oregon-based body sets guidelines for food farms, processors, and distributors based on its certification standard.
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council was established in 2010 by the World Wildlife Fund and Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative. It’s a robust standard for fish aquaculture farms globally. The council operates with a chain of custody certification, to ensure that all stakeholders comply with traceability requirements. ASC uses MSC's Chain of Custody as the basis for its standards.
The Global Aquaculture Alliance has been working with stakeholders in the seafood industry to promote sustainable aquaculture practices. It maintains a Best Aquaculture Practices certification standard, providing guidelines for the entire production chain, including processing plants, farms, hatcheries, and feed mills. The standard requires verifiable systems for traceability that fully account for all inputs, production, and outputs at each step in the production chain.
Traditional traceability systems employed by the majority of the seafood supply chain industry are centralized. This means that data is owned by one partner, and data integrity is dependent on implicit trust in the data owner. A centralized database lacks transparency among the partners in the supply chain, and is vulnerable to data tampering. Better technology is needed to improve the manner in which data is shared and stored within the seafood supply chain.
Here’s where an exciting new technology comes into play: blockchain. It’s a shared, distributed database that’s accessible by every partner in the supply chain, and is considered tamper-proof. In the food supply chain, blockchain can help to reduce communication gaps between partners.
Many companies have begun implementing blockchain in their supply chains. Industrial giants such as Walmart, Albertsons, Unilever, Nestlé, and Starbucks are deploying early versions of the technology to improve food traceability and safety. According to research firm Gartner, 20% of the top global grocers will use blockchain by 2025.
Blockchain differs from traditional traceability systems in the following ways:
- It’s decentralized, with no single party in control of the information. There’s a set of rules that all participating organizations must follow.
- It’s distributed. Because multiple nodes carry a complete copy of the data, blockchain is inherently resilient to failure.
- It’s immutable. In traditional seafood traceability systems, data can be altered easily. That’s not the case with a blockchain, which prevents data tampering.
Take the case of commercial fishing in open water. Fishermen register their catch on the blockchain network. The data they enter can include details such as time of catch, species of fish, weight of fish, exact location of the trawler at the time of catch, storage conditions (including temperature and humidity), and the gear used to catch the fish.
Once the data is entered, it follows the fish throughout the seafood supply chain. Coupled with the internet of things (IoT), blockchain can connect data from each trawler to respective processors. It allows for real-time monitoring of the condition of the seafood as it moves along the supply chain, making the entire process more transparent.
As soon as fishermen catch the fish, they can attach a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag with a unique ID number. As the fish makes its way to the processor, the tag gives out real-time information with regard to location, condition and the number of people who held possession of the product during its journey. Blockchain records all this.
Along with technologies such as RFID and IoT, blockchain can help the supply chain track every movement of seafood. Once it hits the store shelf, the consumer can trace the journey merely by scanning a code on the package.
Blockchain has the potential to instill a new sense of trust among food consumers. By being decentralized, distributed, and immutable, it ranks among the technologies that can be real game-changers in the seafood industry.
Karthik Nair is a supply-chain technology analyst at ByteAlly, a supply-chain technology provider and partner of the IBM food trust blockchain.