Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability: A Critical Mission, not Mission Impossible

Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability (SALT) is a global alliance for knowledge exchange and action to promote legal and sustainable fisheries through improved transparency in seafood supply chains. To help achieve this the Alliance runs Partner Labs that bring together representatives from the seafood industry, governments and nongovernmental organisations to accelerate learning and support collaboration on innovative solutions to these challenges.

Eachmile and its initiative Fishcoin have participated in two Partner Labs and is hoping to continue its involvement in this very important initiative. The Labs flesh out issues and barriers to the adoption of electronic Catch Documentation & Traceability (eCDT) systems and ask participants to come up with innovative solutions and implement them where possible. In the same vein of knowledge exchange I would like to share some of Eachmile’s experiences and understandings around the importance and challenges of achieving traceability in seafood supply chains.

Firstly, let me state, it is a simple concept but it is not easy to achieve for a whole range of reasons— if it were it would have been done and it wouldn’t be an issue. Some Lab participants seem overwhelmed by the challenges as they delve into them— so much so that I heard that it had been described as ‘mission impossible’ in the most recent Lab in February of this year. Although we can understand why someone may describe it as that, it is not mission impossible, it is mission critical.

Why? Well if we cannot get catch documentation we cannot assess stock sizes and know who is catching what in order to determine who should be given legal access to and/or ownership of the stock. Thus in fisheries, without catch documentation schemes it will remain a free-for-all until there is no viable fishery and the habitat is destroyed in the process.

Why? If we cannot get traceability through supply chains we cannot identify, verify and reward those who are harvesting seafood in a legal, sustainable and responsible manner. It is like we are driving blind toward a cliff with a steering wheel that is disconnected from the wheels.

It’s not just for seafood either. It is the same for many other products and commodities, as the vast majority, like seafood, are harvested and value added by people in developing nations. Nations and people that often do not have the resource to implement and access eCDT technology, or the capacity and incentive to use them. With regards to the latter, the incentive has to be a clear with a demonstrable return on investment — be that an investment of money, time, or both.

So lets look at the objectives of the SALT initiative and some of the challenges more specifically:

Objective 1. Expand accessible, interoperable and electronic catch documentation and traceability for wild capture fisheries and aquaculture

Accessible could be technological and economic accessibility. This could be as fundamental as access to power or, as in most cases, access to information and communications technology and the ability to pay for it. The latter meaning having enough money to pay for it and the facilities to do so — e.g. a bank account, a credit card etc.

Interoperability can be syntactic or semantic. In other words the ability of systems and users to be able to connect and then understand one another. What language the computers and humans are using to communicate basically. These are not standardised and initiatives like SALT, the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability, and the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on Catch Documentation Schemes are working hard to achieve this.

So do we have to wait for standards to be standardised, for more telecommunications towers to be built, or until everyone has the ability to pay for a smartphone and for data, or until every knows how to use an eCDT system? Do we have enough time for that?

Objective 2: Increase the capacity of seafood-producing countries to adopt catch documentation and traceability systems to strengthen fisheries management and verify fisheries data

Capacity refers to the human or institutional ability to understand the concepts, the language, the technologies etc. in order to be able and/or willing to apply them. Capacity could also refer to the resource needed to get to a national scale and deal with the variety, velocity, and/or volume of data as well as ensure its veracity.

Some say that governments just need to regulate for eCDT. However, even with technological accessibility, governments of seafood-producing nations would struggle to regulate and make mandatory the ownership and use of an eCDT technology without providing one — or heavily subsidising them. Especially when artisanal and small-scale fishers make up a significant portion of the industry and the electorate.

What about the bigger companies further down supply chains? Why can’t they provide eCDT systems to their suppliers? In developing nations with long, convoluted supply chains it would probably be infeasible, impractical, and uneconomic in most cases. If a large seafood company needs a 1000 tons of seafood on average it may need to have access to nearly double that to remain competitive and deal with systematic risks that can disrupt supply chains. Risks of natural disturbances and disasters such as El Niño, monsoons, floods, droughts, volcanic ash clouds, etc. Man-made disruptions or disasters include wars, coup d’état, oil or financial crises, foreign exchange fluctuations, etc. Furthermore, a fisher or fish farmer and the first buyers will often not know which supply chains the product will head into and it would be impractical to have a Thai Union, Maruha, Bluecrest etc. application on his or her phone.

Examples of disasters, natural and human, and disruptions to my own supply chains. L to R: Mount Calbuco eruption and volcanic ash clouds grounding planes, Chile 2015; Sri Lanka Civil War 2008 cutting tuna supply chains; aircraft trimmings issue 2005 flowers over tuna; crash in value of GBP to JPY 2008

Objective 3. Increase incentives and capacities for the seafood industry to adopt electronic traceability to ensure the legality of wild-caught fisheries products in their supply chains

Incentives can be financial and direct or indirect in the form of a monetary incentive, a rebate, a subsidy, a transferable access right (e.g. quota), or increased market access etc. They can also be non-financial in the form of non-transferrable access rights, or recognition that build brand value etc.

Incentives are perhaps the most important aspect to gain the wide spread adoption of eCDT technologies at an individual or company level as both must see an incentive or demonstrate a return on investment respectively.

Concurrently, it is also critical to think about the disincentives. Certainly when transparency is being demanded as well as traceability, as they are two similar but quite different concepts. Traceability is the ability of an individual or company to track seafood (the raw materials as well as ingredients and packaging for food safety certification) one step up (back), within, and one step down (forward) in a supply chain.

To achieve a food safety or chain of custody certification, and to be able to supply customers that demand traceability, a company must demonstrate they have the systems in place to pass surveillance audits that check their ability to track randomly selected batches of produce up and down the supply chain and balance out the inputs with their outputs. This does not reveal to others in their supply chain or to third parties who they bought from or sold to, and, for commercially sensitive reasons, auditors must sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Transparency, on the other hand, could mean that, who a company bought from or sold to, what ingredients they used etc., could be revealed to their competitors. Undesirable practices but not necessarily illegal practices could also be revealed. For example, the use of sodium tripolyphosphate as both a preservative but also a soak that can increase the weight of, say a peeled shrimp, by up to 25%. That your fresh fish is not two days old but two weeks old (which may not necessarily be a safety issue with fish, and may even give a more desirable flavour and texture profile). Then there is liability. What happens if you have an order to fill and you find out your supplier has substituted a product or ingredient with an otherwise legal, certified, product/ingredient but not on your agreed upon approved supplier list?

Increase in weight of Macrobrachium prawns in sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) soak.

Objective 4. Identify ways in which the implementation of electronic catch documentation and traceability can support human and labor rights for all seafood workers, food security, livelihoods and well-being

Slaves in Thailand’s fishing industry and one woman’s quest to bring them home. See Ghost Fleet.

This is a critical aspect. We cannot have traceable and sustainable seafood that is being caught by slaves or processed by slave labour. However there are data protection and data sovereignty issues with obtaining, handling and storing personal data that is used to verify seafood that has been harvested and processed responsibly.

Finally we must remember, if we do not have traceability to the very start of supply chains, not just of products alone but of their ingredients, we do not have traceability — and this means the ingredients of the feed used in aquaculture. And although we have traceability of the product we may not know if the product is sustainably and responsibly harvested and produced or not. With the likelihood that over 95% of the seafood produced on the planet is emanating from developing nations it is mission critical to find ways to reach this first mile.

It is has been Eachmile’s mission to help find solutions to these challenges. Our mFish and Fishcoin initiatives are attempting to address the accessibility and incentive pieces. We are also addressing the key challenge of who pays what, when, where and how in seafood supply chains with Fishcoin tokens being the medium of exchange for the key data elements, allowing the market to price the data, and use the system as and when they need to. It is a big challenge and no single entity can do this alone. It will take the collaboration of industry, non-government organisations and governments. And it is the important work of initiatives like SALT that are driving this forward to become a reality.