MONTEREY, Calif. – In an era when consumers increasingly want to eat sustainable, socially responsible food, tracing fish from the boat to the plate is a holy grail in the seafood industry.
The problem: it's very hard to track a fish from the time it's caught till it gets to the seafood counter. And a white fish fillet from a sustainably harvested, well-cared for fishery in clean water looks remarkably like one from an over harvested, poorly managed fishery caught by badly-treated workers.
Not infrequently, even the fish name on the package or the menu is wrong — fish misbranding is a problem in some overfished or high value species. Tilapia, Pacific ocean perch, yellowtail rockfish, white bass and even tilapia are frequently substituted for the popular red snapper, according to a report by the non-profit Oceana.
Only by tracking can the customer know what they're buying is what they think they're buying.
While not yet ready for wide release, tech companies, startups and non-profits are building systems to determine just that.
"Right now there's a window of opportunity for seafood fraud you can drive a truck through. Tracking makes it smaller. It's not 100% fool-proof, but it's more porthole-sized," said Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for traceability initiatives at the Canadian non-profit Ecotrust Canada.
Ecotrust’s ThisFish traceability software platform, for instance, allows fishermen to attach a uniquely coded tracking tag to each fish or lot of fish as it is caught or brought ashore. That code — read via a smartphone or computer — follows the fish as it moves from the dock, the processing plant and the supermarket.
The information is transmitted to the cloud, which has brought down costs, said Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for traceability initiatives at the Canadian non-profit.
Fish and shelfish are healthy, popular and fiendishly difficult to track. They’re often harvested in the open sea by ships under the flags of many nations, brought to dock in ports around the world, sometimes processed in two or more other countries and finally sold in yet another. Being able to say where a given fillet or shrimp came from is often impossible.
That knowledge, however, is key to being able to tell a buyer, a consumer, or a government that the fish is what it says it is and was sustainably caught by workers who were properly compensated.
Western buyers especially are willing to pay more for seafood they can trust, which activists hope will help push the benefits and not just the costs of tracing down to the level of the fisherman.
But only in the past few years has technology come seriously to bear on the problem.
“People are always saying ‘You mean you can’t do that yet?’” said Tejas Bhatt, director of the global food traceability center at the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago.
It’s coming. In a field where margins are razor thin and boats operate where there is no cell service or Internet, many companies see a potential market, said Timothy Moore, an advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who works on a program to promote sustainable fisheries in Asia.
PAPER TO THE CLOUD
Part of the issue is the need to shift from paper to digital bits. Government-mandated tracing, especially for the European Union, is still predominantly paper based.
“The information’s theoretically there but it’s almost impossible to access and difficult to verify,” said Moore.
Switching to digital data that can be accessed at multiple points via cloud-based computing is beginning to change that.
Another challenge: tracking information about ships’ locations, which can be used to monitor possible illegal fishing practices. Yet most fishing boats operate far out of cell service range. To give them the connectivity necessary to upload information in realtime, several companies make inexpensive vessel tracking systems.
UK-based SuccorFish is doing this, as is Pelagic Data Systems. The San Francisco startup has created inexpensive solar-powered satellite systems that allow coastal fishing operators in tiny boats to have the same ability to upload information about their catch in realtime that large industrial fishing boats have.
As governments crack down on illegal fishing, such tracking data allows a fisherman to prove the catch comes from a legal fishing spot. The ability to show how, where and when a fish was taken can also make a catch eligible for sustainability certification that brings with it higher prices.
“They’ve gotten them down to where it’s affordable even for small boats,” said Moore.
Singapore-based EcoHub, a seafood information and communications technology company, is further developing a mobile technology application known as M-Fish that is a catch documentation and traceability system. It's making it open source.
“The solution will minimize the economic and technological barriers for logging catch, and tracking it through the supply chain to the consumers. It doesn’t even require a smart phone, it can just be a phone with some internet features,” said EcoHub’s Alistair Douglas.
All spoke on a panel about seafood traceability at a sustainable foods conference held by the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Monday.
Which tech solutions will end up being adopted by the seafood industry is still far from clear. In part that's due to the lack of standard for what traceability means, which is still being worked out.
“Once the standards are in place, companies will know what they need to do and implementation will be able to ramp up very quickly,” said Bhatt.
For now, “it’s the wild West out there, we don’t know which ones will win,” said Bhatt. “We’re making steady progress but it’s excruciatingly slow.”