May 8th, 2016

Tracing traceability

Food supply chains are increasingly global, complex and dynamic. This is particularly apparent in the seafood industry’s supply chain, which have previously been described as “opaque, complex and in some areas, technologically deprived.”

This isn’t helped by the fact that vessels at sea possess an invisible quality. Operating in an impossibly large, difficult to regulate environment, they are transient and seemingly autonomous.

As a way to combat this, traceability has become an important concept in the global fishing and seafood industry. It provides stakeholders with transparency and the ability to follow a product through the supply chain, providing answers to questions around food safety and sustainability. Traceability increases customer confidence in food products, thanks to verification that it’s been procured sustainably and the ability to prove the legality of a product is an important step towards address illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. This practice occurs on a global scale, leading to huge fishing losses which hit developing countries hard and harms the marine eco-system that many rely upon. Traceability makes IUU fishing less profitable, as those engaging in the practice cannot so easily sell their products in legitimate markets.

Of course, this is not a new concept. Old style fisheries management has implemented traceability measures but these have predominately taken paper form, not an entirely efficient or legitimate system, and the risk of human error remains. However, better than nothing, which until recently, was the only other option.

However, the landscape is changing and focus is turning towards technological solutions to traceability, offering transparency to an industry notoriously known for operating in the shadows. Vessel tracking technologies are improving, while new software and data collection platforms are being integrated into supply chains.

How do these work?

Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are increasingly standard satellite-based monitoring systems that regularly provides fishing authorities with the location, course and speed of vessels. With proper implementation, they can detect, deter and eliminate IUU fishing, tracking vessels that may be fishing in areas outside their national waters. This is achieved through a shipboard transponder which transmits a vessel’s identity and location (longitude and latitude) and often the course and speed, via satellite communication and land earth station to relevant authorities. This data also supports the development of improved stock assessments and can be used to corroborate information provided by paper documentation, offering a much needed source of independent verification.

Traceability and human rights

Advances in technological based traceability innovations can also reduce the risk of human rights violations, as enhanced openness and transparency makes it increasingly hard for these activities to occur unnoticed. Possible advances include the use of GPS monitoring and video feeds which could provide opportunities for crew to check in with family or labor authorities, and ensure workers aren’t being transferred onto different vessels. Meanwhile, both the private and non-profit sector are looking at how to utilize mobile technology to better connect workers operating in these environments. This includes the development of a mobile payment and feedback service for migrant workers and smartphone applications designed to build an online community for migrant workers. While not explicitly linked to the mapping the traceability of seafood, illegal fishing activities and human rights violations often, but not always, go hand in hand. Technological innovations in one area will undoubtedly lead to improvements in the other.

These types of solutions are relatively recent in their development, and the seafood industry remains globally complex. Different countries have different levels of capacity for implementing different initiatives, which means a collaborative effort is necessary to ensure success.

However, progress is happening, as evidenced by industry groups coming together to move forward, driven by diverse concerns that traceability initiatives will go a long way to solve.