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The fish and tech supper.

New technology fights for the traditional fish supper.

The fish and chip supper has been a British staple since the 1860s and even today it’s still a weekly tradition to eat a hot, crispy chunk of battered cod on a Friday. Fish holds an important place in the UK’s heritage but the future of our fish suppers is under pressure from a whole school of threats: overfishing, pollution, and climate change. When I sit down to eat my fish and chips, I want to know that it’s been responsibly sourced and it’s got me thinking about how technology and data can help us keep track of where our fish comes from. In this blog, I’ll be taking a look at Global Fishing Watch and other new uses of data and technology that can help us trace where our seafood comes from.

The traditional fish supper: best served with lots of salt, vinegar, and sauce! Photo credit: bazzadarambler, title: Crich, Derbyshire … fish and chips — my undoing! (CC by 2.0)

Despite our love for fish suppers, the UK’s consumption of fish is small fry compared to other countries. In the UK, people eat an average of 8.5 kg of fish each year (that’s around 50 fish suppers) but in Japan and Iceland — two of the biggest consumers of fish in the world — people eat around 70 kg and 90 kg of fish per year respectively. This global appetite for fish makes it an international business. Last year, 52% of the seafood that entered the UK supply chain was imported, or landed by foreign ships, and we exported seafood to places as far flung as Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA. With so much fish being shipped and flown across the world, keeping track of it all is tricky but people are developing new methods to make it easier.

Out of sight, but not out of mind.

The story behind the cod on our plate begins hundreds, if not thousands of miles away — out at sea and out of sight. Once upon a time we thought the sea contained a limitless, inexhaustible supply of food but today we know that’s not true. The annual global catch of fish, in tonnes, peaked in the 1980s and has declined ever since. It has nothing to do with lack of effort or demand, we simply overexploited our oceans and pushed fish populations to the brink of collapse.

Eighty percent of fisheries are either overfished, at capacity, or recovering from overfishing.

To restore them to more sustainable levels, a code of conduct for responsible fishing was introduced, and most countries have strict quotas and rules about where and when you can fish, what you can take, and how much you can take. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing from happening: some estimates put the volume of IUU fish in the supply chain at an amount that’s equal to 33% of the total legal catch. With all this illegal fish flying around, it’s no wonder people are worried about where their fish really comes from.

Ship to shore.

In an effort to make what’s happening at sea more transparent, Global Fishing Watch has developed a way to make use of data that’s already being transmitted by ships — the Automatic Identification System (AIS). AIS is a tracking system that ships use to avoid collisions at sea and depending on the size of the vessel and the type of transmitter it has, a ship sends a signal that communicates its location as frequently as every two seconds. These signals are picked up and stored by satellite and terrestrial receivers, and up to 20 million of these signals are sent and received every single day. It’s little surprise therefore that the AIS is an extremely interesting source of data for anyone who wants to keep track of the world’s fishing fleet.

Global Fishing Watch taps into this publicly available data and uses it to track up to 60,000 fishing vessels and identify what kind of fishing activity they are involved in. Signals transmitted by ships across the world glow brightly on a map that anyone with an internet connection can access, highlighting the areas where fishing efforts are most concentrated. It’s even possible to follow the course of individual ships. With this kind of oversight, it will not only get harder for vessels to get away with illegal fishing, but it will get easier for responsible suppliers to prove their fish is responsibly sourced.

Global Fishing Watch is able to identify what kind of fishing activity is occurring by analysing vessel tracks. Image credit: Global Fishing Watch

Shore to plate.

However, the fishing vessel is just one link in a long chain of custody before a piece of fish is dipped in batter and fried. Between the ship and the shop, fish will be brought and sold multiple times, processed, and prepared for eating before it lands on someone’s dinner plate. An investigation into the scale of seafood fraud in the USA, conducted between 2010 and 2012, found one in three seafood samples were mislabeled nationwide. One way to counter this kind of fraud is certification schemes — such as the MSC ‘blue tick’ — which often use DNA testing to check suppliers selling certified fish are labelling their products correctly.

Small certification schemes that are more local in scale are making use of tags to help people verify the fish they are buying is locally and sustainably caught. For example, a non-profit conservation based organisation in the Gulf of Mexico has established a scheme where fishermen will attach tags with a unique serial code and QR code to each fish they catch. As a fish passes along the supply chain, the tag stays with it until it’s packaged up and labelled with a sticker that has the same QR code printed on it. Shoppers are able to scan this code with their phone, right there in the grocery store, and confirm that the fish in their hand was responsibly sourced.

Taking this tagging technology one step further is a platform that’s looking into using blockchain technology to trace tuna as it passes along the supply chain. The motivation behind using this technology — which is more famously associated with bitcoin — is to make a digital record that can’t be removed or changed after it has been created, thus making it harder to duplicate certificates of origin further down the chain.

During a trial of this approach, fishermen in Indonesia created a digital record of their catch by sending a text message to the blockchain information system. When the tuna is sold to a supplier, the record is sold with it, and together they will pass along the chain of custody until they reach the consumer who can view the digital record on their phone. A physical tag with a QR code or other tracking hardware still needs to be attached to the tuna but the use of blockchain technology could prove more reliable than the paper records that currently accompany tuna when it is sold.

Data is the new tartar sauce

Certification schemes not only serve to give consumers confidence in the fish they are buying, but act as an incentive for producers and suppliers to meet the demands of consumers who are willing to pay a premium for verified products. Although there’s still a long way to go before every piece of battered fish we eat comes from a verified source, we are on the right course to squeezing illegal and unsustainable fish off the menu.

Using data to tackle environmental issues has become as ubiquitous as serving fish with tartar sauce and the novel applications of data and technology mentioned here are testament to this. As our methods become more sophisticated, the scrutiny upon the supply chains dishing up seafood can only intensify, and this is good news for consumers who want to know their fish supper won’t cost the earth.

Curious to see an example of how data is being used to improve transparency in agricultural supply chains? You might find this blog interesting:

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