When you browse the fish counter or order off a seafood menu, can you be sure the species label is accurate and the fish was caught or farmed ethically? In many cases, the answer is no. A 2014 report in Marine Policy estimates that over 20 percent of wild-captured seafood imported into the U.S. comes from illegal fisheries, and a 2016 report from Oceana estimates that, on average, 20 percent of seafood worldwide is mislabeled. The opaque supply chain of many seafood products can hide a host of problems, including human rights abuses in the labor force, fishing in protected areas or of protected species and environmental degradation.
But change is coming. Entrepreneurs in the seafood industry worldwide are creating ways to make supply chains more transparent and seafood products and processes more easily traceable.
Envision a fleet out on the Pacific, catching fish that will change hands five to seven times before landing on your plate. What if each boat were equipped with a small waterproof transmitter recording catch data – date, time, species, location, weight – that followed the fish all the way to purchase? And technology much sharper than the human eye verified the exact species? What if marketing and packaging captured the fish’s nutritional content, capture date and journey?
Solutions like these are already in place at a small scale, and traceability and transparency will soon be the price of admission to the seafood counter.
Improved government regulations, expanding consumer curiosity and technological innovation are all converging to make this happen. Seafood could be like coffee. Remember when it was just coffee? Now we can find out where it comes from, if it grew in shade or sun, who picked it, and how it got to our cup.
Within a decade, complete information on seafood is likely to be so common that we won’t have to pay more to know the story, and mystery fish will be a thing of the past. (See “Your Relationship with Fish Is About to Change” for more on this and other shifts remaking the seafood industry.)
The global trend toward transparency and traceability in seafood also mirrors the evolution of food-safety laws over the last century, according to a recent report on traceability by FishWise. And regulatory actions such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Port State Measures Agreement – an effort to halt illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that’s been ratified by 40 countries – are creating a demand for new traceability technologies and approaches.
The market for products and services in the traceability and transparency sector is expected to grow to $14.1 billion over the next two years, reports Allied Market Research. Ninety-two percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. now comes from retailers with a commitment to responsible sourcing, according to a report by the consulting firm CA Environmental Associates—and those retailers need information.
Because of the critical need for innovation in this area, Fish 2.0 created a dedicated Transparency & Traceability track in this year’s competition for sustainable seafood businesses. Entrepreneurs from all over the world responded: businesses based in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Costa Rica, Iceland, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. are participating in the new track.
Here are just a few of the trends we’re seeing in approaches to the problem:
Platforms and equipment that collect real-time fishing trip data
This category includes wireless sensors and software that collect data on fishing vessels and feed into visualization and analytics software so that buyers can ensure legality and quality while suppliers can optimize prices. These technologies also support the fleet management needed to eliminate IUU fishing.
Approaches that connect fishers and eaters
Emerging online marketplaces and platforms connect fishers to wholesale buyers and consumers so that purchasers know where their seafood was caught and by whom before it even lands on the dock.
Satellite water monitoring technologies
These technologies, aimed at both aquaculture and wild capture fisheries, can detect where boats are fishing, as well as algal blooms, oil spills and other threats.
Hyperspectral and microbiome technologies
You can tell a lot about a fish’s quality and species by its colors and shape, but the human eye can’t always detect key characteristics. Hyperspectral imaging technologies render subjects at the pixel level. Along with microbiome sequencing, these techniques quickly classify fish for freshness, species type and place of origin so that processors can more accurately sort them and buyers know what they are getting.
It’s going to take new partnerships as well as new business models and technologies to achieve full seafood traceability, and it will take private investment to allow these traceability ventures to reach the scale needed to solve the problems we are facing worldwide. But I have no doubt it will happen. The creativity, scientific innovation and openness to cross-cultural partnerships needed to bring the traceability and transparency revolution to fruition are out there. We just need to help them make the right connections and find effective strategies to bring their solutions to a waiting market.
Monica Jain is founder and executive director of Fish 2.0, a social enterprise that brings investors and entrepreneurs together to grow the global sustainable seafood sector. If you want to be part of this transformation, or if you are working toward this vision, follow Fish 2.0 @fish20org, sign up for our news updates, and share your expertise if you can.