Thanks To Technology, You Might Soon Know Where Your Seafood Actually Comes From

Better traceability in a notoriously opaque seafood industry could save our oceans, experts say.
A prospective buyer inspects the quality of frozen tuna before an auction at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan on Jan. 5, 2016.
A prospective buyer inspects the quality of frozen tuna before an auction at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan on Jan. 5, 2016.
Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

Millions of people worldwide depend on seafood to survive. An estimated 450 million people get their primary source of food from the ocean, and according to the World Bank, fishing makes up at least 10 percent of the global economy.

But for all its popularity and importance, the seafood industry’s supply chain is notoriously opaque, complex and plagued with problems, including illegal fishing and seafood fraud, which can seriously deplete fish populations and harm marine habitats.

Seafood lovers often have no idea where their fish or shrimp were caught, and even whether or not their snapper was the real McCoy.

Thanks to improved technology, together with the efforts of businesses, nonprofits and governments, however, “ocean-to-table” visibility is fast becoming a reality. And this, experts say, may help save our ailing seas.

A masked Somali pirate in Hobyo, Somalia, in 2012.
A masked Somali pirate in Hobyo, Somalia, in 2012.

During an innovation in seafood event last year, one participant called the seafood industry “the most antiquated” he’d ever seen when it comes to traceability.

“This industry reminds me of thick San Francisco fog,” said Mark Barnekow, CEO of BluWrap, a seafood transportation company — a fog that’s served to mask a slew of entrenched problems.

Pirate fishing, for one, is a global concern. Up to $12 billion worth of seafood is caught illegally by pirates every year, according to the State Department. Pirate fishing is linked to enormous environmental impacts, including destructive fishing practices, as well as drug and human trafficking and other crimes.

Overfishing is another major worry. Secretary of State John Kerry called the problem “gigantic” in an interview this week.

“A third of the world’s fisheries are overfished, and the ones that aren’t overfished are at max, with more and more demand,” he told The Washington Post. “Half of the world’s population, basically, relies on protein from the ocean to survive. It’s an ecosystem that requires sustainability to survive, and we’re not treating it in a sustainable fashion.”

Then there’s seafood fraud. A recent Oceana report revealed just how staggering this problem is: 1 in 5 of the more than 25,000 seafood samples surveyed in the study was found to be mislabeled. In many cases, the fish were actually cheaper, less desirable fish than the labeling indicated. Troublingly, 16 percent of fish mislabeled as other species were found to be vulnerable, or even endangered, species.

“There are few controls right now in the seafood supply chain so it’s really easy to pull a bait and switch,” Beth Lowell, a senior campaign director at Oceana, told National Geographic this month.

Until recently, consumers had few options for recourse as they waded through the murky waters of the world of seafood, making sustainability an especially challenging goal to fulfil. Was that shrimp dinner you ate caught by pirates in West Africa? Or, was the apparently green-friendly U.S.-farmed snapper you bought at the supermarket actually mislabeled? With an industry so lacking in traceability, such questions had been near-impossible to answer.

The seafood industry hasn’t come up to speed in understanding the farm-to-table movement; it’s a dinosaur that’s mostly written out on fish tickets, ordered over the phone, and relationship-based,” said Sean Dimin, co-founder of seafood sustainability company Sea-To-Table at a New York event this year.

But technology is now bringing change and more visibility to this long-opaque sector.

Just this week, a new, free and potentially industry-changing online tracker called Global Fishing Watch was launched, a collaborative effort between Oceana, Google and the nonprofit SkyTruth.

The satellite-based surveillance system allows consumers, researchers and regulators to track tens of thousands of commercial fishing trawlers all over the globe almost in real time.

“You can slice [this] data in many different ways which we think will be helpful when it comes to law enforcement, increasing public understanding, and catching the kind of people who are doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing,” Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation of the tracker’s potential.

Other traceability tools and services have emerged in recent years to help consumers have more insight into the seafood they’re eating.

Conservation organization Ecotrust, for instance, has launched a traceability software platform called ThisFish that allows fisherman to attach tracking codes to fish they catch. Consumers can then use their smartphone, tablet or computer to read the code, and learn exactly where the fish came from and the people who harvested it.

FairAgora Asia, a company based in Bangkok, is developing a software platform that monitors and displays social and environmental data on fisheries. North Carolina-based TRUfish is working on a subscription service that offers retailers DNA testing of fish ― a service that could better assure customers of the authenticity of seafood in stores.

A Peruvian fisherman, 2012.
A Peruvian fisherman, 2012.

Despite progress in this area, however, traceability in the seafood industry is still in its infancy. Paper-based tracing is still commonplace, and in remote areas where some fishermen work, the internet or even cellphone connection can be hard to come by.

Some information is “theoretically there but it’s almost impossible to access and difficult to verify,” Timothy Moore, an advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told USA Today.

Still, it seems change is underway ― and it’s not just in seafood but in the food industry as a whole.

In 2014, Allied Market Research said the market for food traceability products and technologies would grow to an estimated $14.1 billion by 2019.

“Food traceability is becoming a norm for all food producers across the globe as a result of consumer demands and government regulations concerning food safety,” the company wrote.

This, experts say, is great news for the world’s oceans ― and for the people who rely on them to survive.

Depleted fish stocks, for example, could bounce back if destructive and illegal practices are curbed, Gustavsson of Oceana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If we do all the right things now,” he said, “in 10 years we will have twice as much fish in the ocean globally.”

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