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ThisFish is making waves

With new partnerships, new learnings, and a powerful sense of purpose, ThisFish is working to ensure that “sustainable seafood” lives up to its promise.

Consumers are increasingly looking to understand the providence of their food—where it comes from, the conditions under which it was grown or harvested, and more. Over in the seafood section, that’s the expertise of Ecotrust Canada initiative ThisFish. We asked Eric Enno Tamm, ThisFish general manager, to bring us up to speed on his team’s recent work.

Let’s start with the basics. What is Traceability?

Traceability is the heart of ThisFish. The software we created generates unique codes that fishers and harvesters use to identify and tag their catch and seafood products. The codes stay with the product as it moves through processing and shipping to markets—where it ultimately appears on packaging. Consumers who want the “backstory” on their seafood enter the codes online. We’ve registered more than 1,000 fishermen in the system, and we’re adding more all the time.

Consumers are increasingly interested in the providence of the things they buy. Where do you trace this shift to, and is industry stepping up to the plate?

A few trends came together. First, smartphones put powerful technology in the palm of our hands. And courier companies were the first to really change consumer expectations of real-time tracking. People started to wonder, “If I can follow my package on my iPhone as it travels around the world, why can’t I track the my jeans, or my food?” So some select companies have begun to offer that capability.

Second, there’s a growing interest among consumers in values-based business, whether it’s organic, eco-certified, Fair Trade, locally made, or responsibly sourced. Companies started to realise that they can improve social conditions by improving their practices, and consumers responded to that very strongly and positively.

And traceability is the guarantee that the social good is legitimate?

Yes. Companies realized they need traceability to back up their claims, and that the marginal increase in cost that is involved can pay off in higher levels of consumer trust and loyalty. I think we are seeing a shift in consumer behaviour from traditional branding to transparent labelling.

Why would the seafood industry want to embrace traceability?

With Traceability, companies can reduce their exposure to a risk. They can avoid seafood that, for example, comes from illegal fishing. Or it might be legally caught, but mislabeled at the store. We’ve seen lots of cases in recent years where, for example, “wild salmon” is actually farmed, or where a cheap whitefish is mislabelled as an expensive tuna.

So there is illegal fishing, seafood fraud, and mislabeling, and the other risk that has been getting recent attention is human rights violations. The New York Times, The Associated Press, and the Guardian all have reported on human slavery in seafood supply chains. Major brands don’t want anything to do with this, of course. Traceability helps them steer clear of risky supply chains and bad actors.

Is there something about seafood that makes traceability especially important?

For starters, it’s the most globally traded protein in the world. It’s also extremely diverse and complex; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration keeps tabs on 1,800 species from frozen, to fresh, to live, smoked, cooked, and so on. The vice president of one of North America’s biggest food distributors told me seafood has a level of complexity that other proteins, like beef and chicken, don’t even come close to. The challenge is that supply chains have become incredibly intricate, so tracking a given product’s origins is not often like following a package from A to B.

Tell us about “Faceable,” your recent bid to put the faces of fishers on product packaging.

We had a hunch that consumers would be more likely to engage with a seafood brand if the package featured the name and picture of the actual fishermen who harvested it. It’s a simple idea but it’s also radical and disruptive. We found that the consumers in our research group preferred the Faceable label by a huge margin. It actually blew the others off the charts.

What makes it disruptive and radical?

Consumers clearly want this level of transparency, but as a whole, the seafood industry is not yet interested. This idea that your brand is somewhat dependent on your fisherman… Well, that’s a new idea that many in the seafood industry will need to get used to.

Really, we’re looking to establish provenance. There are many other industries, like coffee, wine and cheese that have a lot of provenance attached to their product. In those markets, the way things are manufactured and harvested, and where, are very important. We want to bring that to the seafood industry.

It sounds like we should be applying the winemaking concept of terroir to the oceans? Is the world ready for meroir?

Sure. A sockeye from the Skeena River, Copper River, or Barkley Sound all have very different flavour profiles, and have different levels of Omega 3 oils, for example. People don’t know that, because it’s still just “fish.” But, there is a lot of benefit to knowing more about the fish you are eating.

We understand that small-scale artisanal fisheries in the developing world are showing interest in the technology. Tell us about that.

We’ve recently partnered with Conservation International in Brazil to trace mangrove crabs from artisanal fisheries, and are working with the Walton Family Foundation and National Geographic to trace rock lobsters from the remote Juan Fernandez archipelago in Chile.

How Does ThisFish align with Ecotrust Canada’s larger mission?

In 2008, fishermen from Vancouver Island came to us and said “We want to develop a traceability system to better market our seafood.” The whole system was developed and codesigned with the fisherman and the fishing industry from the get-go. It’s about strengthening social, environmental and financial accountability in supply chains.

Is ThisFish a software company or a social innovation startup, or both?

We’re both. I deeply believe that social innovation is hardwired into what we do. We can transform business behaviour for the better by making global seafood supply chains more transparent. And we aren’t just about software—we’re about content. We’re in this to tell the stories of what it actually takes to get your seafood from the ocean to your plate. Seafood has a unique, ancient story to tell. And we’re proud to not only continue that tradition, but enhance it.

Originally published Marc 8, 2017. To learn more about the social enterprise ThisFish visit their website.