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  • Katrina Nakamura, PhD, Sustainability Incubator

Follow the fish

Tuna sold in a market in Hoi An, Vietnam

Tuna sold in a market in Hoi An, Vietnam. Image by Andy Wright, retrieved from Flickr.

For some time, I’ve been puzzling over how seafood companies can secure their products by preventing illegal inputs to the supply chain. To make a product more secure, beyond what can be seen around one facility on the inside of a long supply chain, a seafood company can add to their in-house information system a few good control points. At least I thought so. A seafood company, big or small, can collect the registration numbers and owners’ names of the facilities the product came from, for example, or at least the last seller they purchased from. A processor or exporter might start collecting identifiers for facilities, brokers, cold storage and transportation, back through the chain to the fishing vessels. Traceability “happens”, I have reasoned in the past, when someone starts to make it happen inside the chain. The food industry already uses coding and batching for other reasons and adding identifiers to build trust in the system is the principle behind blockchain – sounds like a no-brainer right? But when I’ve made this simple-sounding recommendation to companies the response most often is they feel powerless to start – why?

One fish stick can be a product made across dozens of hands and languages. From much of what’s written about illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, you might reach the conclusion that the major driver of IUU fishing is pirates pillaging the oceans under a skull and cross bones flag. In truth, seafood supply chains are held together by a lot of people working across platforms to get safe and nutritious food to your table at an affordable price, and that includes a lot of family-run businesses. Seafood may be the largest employer in the world. It is also true that seafood supply chains can be long and fragmented, held together by brokers as well as refrigerated cargo facilities like reefers and trucks. There are major stuck points which continue to put so much IUU fish into the market. Yes, there is pirate fishing. But there is also weak coding by customs programs worldwide – this is a major reason why the information systems used in the seafood industry today largely do not capture origin data at the right points needed to verify the legal status of fish inputs to a supply chain.

While traceability is now sustainability’s buzzword – at last – there must also be bridging because systems need to talk to one another to do any meaningful math. There would also need to be oversight to verify the legality of all inputs. This would mean checking the catch volumes reported by fleets to their flag state (data that is not often available in real time) and by flag states to the Regional Fisheries Management Organization, and here one runs into under- or over-reporting by countries.

Underreported or ‘off grid’ catches aren’t accounted for anywhere and this means a net ongoing loss of capital with outsized impacts for island economies and cultures on top of ocean ecosystems. Further, fish stocks cannot be managed for sustainable yield when underreporting is significant.

The underreporting of catches is done both illegally and legally. Individual vessels may not write down what they land, or what is discarded at sea. Sometimes there is no oversight to requiring vessels to validate their catches. Countries may also allow their fishing vessels to be reflagged but then where do they report their catches? Take the case of the Marshall Islands, which reported a zero catch of yellowfin tuna to the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in 2014. Yet it was also the hub for foreign fleets in the Pacific and the seventh largest exporter of yellowfin tuna to the USA the same year, after reflagging the last of the vessels to FSM. A lot of tuna is landed in Majuro by fleets from several countries (China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vanuatu, USA, Tuvalu, Kiribati, FSM) and exported from Majuro as its product, but the inputs are not easily traceable back to the legal rights to fish. It is possible to follow the fish by working backwards, say from import statistics back to public catch registries. But clearly, there exists a different idea of business model at play here than the one we imagine in a block chain “seafood transparency” scenario.

In honour of the International Day for the Fight against IUU fishing, I’d like to direct some attention to the good fight happening from the bottom-up. The push for electronic monitoring from retailers and NGOs is a good one but it can’t alone fix underreporting. What can fix it is a business case for accurate reporting at the base of the chain. The Solomon Islands appears to be following the fish going out from their territory. Where a foreign fleet landing fish in its ports claims it does not have the capacity to keep track of catches, Solomon Islands fishery officials are counting every fish with their own eyes and hands. There’s more than an immediate benefit because countries looking to lease their fishing rights to foreign fleets can make better deals with real numbers in hand before arriving at the deal table.

The same is true for seafood businesses, including family-run smaller businesses in developing countries that count fish and validate their origins. The most promising signs of a healthy future for seafood are in the innovative and nimble ways that a new generation of entrepreneurs are getting fish counted and then to market and telling its story. In China, Han Han of China Blue has described how the next generation of up and coming owners designed their own software to set up a catch reporting system. China Blue is a China-based NGO committed to promoting sustainable fishery and aquaculture. When foreign donors and then the Chinese government tried to set up a catch reporting system it was impossible, she said. They didn’t have the capacity to go into the field first and talk to people in fishing and build trust. The entrepreneurs buying the fish from fishers, like the processor, can do that, Han said.

This is happening worldwide from the west coast of India, where surimi processor Arjun Gadre of Gadre Exports is working with fishery scientists to track and reduce unreported catches of threadfin bream, to the Yucatan where crab processor Rudy Abad has taken catch reporting up into his accountancy system in his business.

There are different ways to fight IUU fishing and to look at sustainable seafood. I can’t forget that 65 to 70 percent of seafood exports globally have origins in developing countries. I’m curious to see what happens as the younger generation of fishers and processors use their phones to track fish, take photos of hands on nets, and start to tell frontline stories. I’m growing convinced that the best chance for ending IUU fishing is not technocratic blueprints but ingenuity from the people still touching the fish with livelihoods closest to the resource. This is because there is a business case for seeing fish as capital — natural capital and also human capital — and for following the fish to build future opportunity.

Katrina Nakamura, PhD is founder of the Sustainability Incubator, which offers technical services for sustainable seafood worldwide.

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