The fishing industry is our most ancient food system. It’s really the last vestige of our hunter-gather society, predating human civilization (and agriculture) by hundreds of thousands of years. Wild-capture fisheries are our greatest undomesticated protein source – the original paleo-diet. The technology and industrial scale of fishing has certainly changed over centuries, but the pursuit of fish on the untamed seas is an age-old story.

So, what is the future of this ancient pursuit? The revolution in information technology and changing consumer attitudes and behaviours presents an opportunity to reverse many of the excesses of industry-scale fisheries in the last half century. The problems have become all too apparent.

Consumers, businesses, NGOs and governments are demanding more transparency and accountability in supply chains to prevent illegal fishing, seafood fraud and human rights abuses. Oceana campaigners have DNA-tested 1,200 seafood samples in the U.S. showing that 30 percent of some species were mislabeled. Recent investigative reports have uncovered shocking stories of slavery at sea in Southeast Asian fisheries. And scholars have estimated that between 20% – 32% of wild-caught seafood imported into the U.S. is illegally harvested.

Illicit activities are especially harmful to responsible fishermen who must compete against cheaper, illegal seafood. Despite the uniqueness of wild seafood, the fishing industry remains a commodity industry, largely not differentiating products by region or production method, unlike wine, cheese, coffee, and other artisanal foods. A lack of traceability means fishermen often have little financial incentive to act responsibly or produce premium quality products.

The U.S. Presidential Task Force on Illegal Fishing and Seafood Fraud made 15 recommendations of which more than half dealt with traceability. “Traceability is a key tool for combating illicit activities that threaten valuable natural resources, increase global food security risk and disadvantage law-abiding fishermen and seafood producers,” stated a senior U.S. government official recently.

In 2009, a group of fishermen approach Vancouver-based non-profit Ecotrust Canada with the idea to build an online seafood traceability system to respond to growing regulatory requirements and the desire to improve the marketing of their catch. The result was ThisFish, a web-based system to allow consumers to trace when, where, how and who caught their seafood.

How ThisFish works

ThisFish is an example of how a simple, small change in an adaptive complex system can create transformative behaviours. Essentially, traceability creates transparency which, in turn, increases the accountability of operators in the supply chain. The increased accountability changes behaviour leading to economic, social and ecological benefits. Basically, bad behaviour gets weeded out and good behaviour is rewarded. We envision a world where information technology empowers producers and consumers to create a more socially responsible and sustainable seafood industry.

From the beginning, we understood that our technology needed to be iterative, flexible and scalable because of the diversity of species, fisheries and businesses in the seafood industry and the complexity of supply chains. The seafood industry consists of thousands of species, and millions of small-scale fishermen and businesses. This remarkable biological and entrepreneurial diversity is the industry’s greatest strength.

With the cost of technology—both hardware and software—declining significantly, small-scale operators can now access powerful mobile apps, software and electronic monitoring systems to make their businesses run more efficiently and transparently. Smartphones are nearly ubiquitous giving us all the ability to connect directly to the producers of our seafood.

We’ve only become disconnected from our food in the last half century. Throughout human history, most people either produced food themselves or purchased it directly from a local producer. Ironically, technology has the potential to reconnect us with our food, taking us back to the future of fish.

 

Eric Enno Tamm is the General Manager of our Traceability program. This was originally published as part of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Future Food blog series.