Say goodbye to generic seafood

You wouldn’t pick up a brick of something stamped ‘cheese’ — why settle for nearly that little when it comes to seafood?

Monica Jain
Apr 21, 2017 · 5 min read
Photo by chuttersnap

Consumers who would never buy something generically labeled meat or cheese are often stuck at almost that level of information when it comes to seafood. The opaque origins and processing of many seafood products can hide a host of problems, including species fraud, illegal fishing, human rights abuses in the labor force, and pollution — as well as the resource depletion that accompanies these issues. A 2014 report in Marine Policy estimates that over 20 percent of wild-captured seafood imported into the U.S. comes from illegal fisheries.

But this is quickly changing, as an increasing number of innovators in the seafood industry create new ways of making the system more transparent and seafood products and processes more traceable.

Imagine a tuna fleet out on the Pacific, catching fish that will change hands five to seven times before landing on a 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? Or if marketing and packaging captured the nutritional content and journey of sustainably caught or farmed fish?

Fish follow the path of coffee

Solutions like these are already happening at a small scale in specific enterprises, and traceability and transparency will soon be the price of admission to the seafood counter for all. Fish is following the path of coffee. Remember when it was just coffee? Now we want to know where it comes from, if it grew in shade or sun, who picked it, and how it got to our cup.

Ten years from now, I expect seafood to be similarly traceable. Complete information will be so common that there won’t be a price premium for it, and mystery fish will be unheard of in the U.S. Tightening government regulations, expanding consumer curiosity, and technological innovation are all converging to make this happen. (See “Your Relationship with Fish Is About to Change” for more on this and other shifts remaking the seafood industry.)

The global trend toward traceability mirrors the evolution of food-safety laws over the last century, according to a recent report on traceability by FishWise. Additionally, regulatory actions such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Port State Measures Agreement — aimed at deterring illegal and unregulated fishing and ratified by 40 countries — are creating a demand for traceability pioneers and technologies.

Predicted market growth tops $14 billion

The market for products and services in this sector is expected to grow to $14.1 billion over the next two years, according to Allied Market Research, and the Fish 2.0 Market Report on traceability lays out a variety of needs and opportunities in this sector. According to a report by consulting firm CA Environmental Associates, 92 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. now comes from retailers with a commitment to responsible sourcing — and those retailers need information.

Photo courtesy FairAgora

Because of the critical need for innovation in this area, the Fish 2.0 2017 competition for sustainable seafood businesses has a special track for traceability and transparency, open to companies all over the world. (Applications are open through April 29, and participation in the competition is free.)

We know the entrepreneurs who can solve traceability and transparency problems are out there. In the last Fish 2.0 competition, in 2015, 4.7 percent of entrants were working on these issues. This year, just in the workshops leading up to the competition, 15 percent of participants are focusing on transparency and traceability. Here are just a few of the trends we see emerging:

Vessel-tracking technologies. Entrepreneurs are working on systems that capture data at sea and code the seafood shipments, so that buyers know where the seafood was caught, how it was preserved, and when it was captured. For example, one Fish 2.0 alumnus, Pelagic Data Systems, has developed a solar-powered plastic box that uploads information to databases via cell network. We expect to see more innovation in this area.

Affordable software, data collection platforms, auditing and sharing tools. Operations such as FairAgora, based in Bangkok, are springing up to help buyers audit seafood suppliers so they can be sure that sustainability claims are true. FairAgora calls its system Verifik8 and uses it to track, manage and display social and environmental data on seafood operations, allowing smaller operators to compete in global supply chains without requiring expensive systems of their own.

Brands that tell a sustainable seafood story. Worldwide, we are seeing a range of new products that offer full traceability to the source of capture or harvest. California-based Salty Girl Seafood sells packaged, marinated fish that can be traced online to individual fishers. Oyster farmers, crab and lobster fishers, and finfish distributors are starting to use systems that allow consumers to trace seafood back to a specific boat or farm. Community-supported fisheries continue to proliferate due to strong demand from consumers, and an increasing number of chefs are purchasing seafood from dock-to-plate suppliers.

Photo courtesy Salty Girl Seafood

New business models and technologies needed

It’s going to take new connections as well as new business models and technologies to achieve full seafood traceability. Data sharing among companies will be essential to addressing the global issues of slavery, illegal fishing, fraud, and loss of biodiversity.

All these needs represent opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs. We’re already seeing entrepreneurs around the world shine a light on links throughout the supply chain. 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 connect the dots.

A version of this story originally appeared on the National Geographic blog.

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