Entrepreneurs Seize Opportunity in Seafood Traceability

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By Monica Jain

The seafood industry has one of the most complicated supply chains in the world, often with five to seven companies involved from catch to plate, each keeping records on paper in far-flung locations. In these murky waters a new wave of entrepreneurs sees opportunities to make the seafood industry more transparent to consumers, businesses and governments striving for sustainability.

The seafood industry defines traceability as the ability to track the source of seafood, the conditions under which it is farmed or caught, and the intermediaries it passes through. Improving traceability is critical to promoting sustainability in both aquaculture and wild-caught fish: The current, largely opaque supply chain hides numerous negative impacts, including overfishing, fraud, human rights abuses in the labor force, pollution and resource depletion. (See TriplePundit’s recent Q&A on seafood traceability for details on systemic issues.)

The shrimp market illustrates many of these issues. Shrimp is one of the most heavily consumed types of seafood, accounting for a $5 billion market in the U.S. and 2 billion euros in the EU. More than half the world’s shrimp supply comes from aquaculture, which has grown rapidly in recent years, largely in Asia. As detailed in our recent report, this rapid growth and lack of oversight has resulted in habitat destruction, disease outbreaks, and in the case of the Thai shrimp feed industry, forced labor.

The fishing industry in Thailand employs 300,000 people, many of them migrants from Myanmar or Cambodia. These migrants often are heavily indebted to their traffickers, who then sell them off as crew on ships catching fish used for shrimp feedstock. NGOs and governments have been bringing international pressure to bear on this issue, and retailers in the U.S. and Europe are looking to traceability strategies to verify suppliers’ labor standards. Ethical suppliers are out there. Traceability enables corporate buyers and consumers to support businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible and to avoid creating market incentives for bad practices.

Entrepreneurs take on supply chain hazards

The rising demand for traceable seafood among Western retail buyers and consumers is inspiring entrepreneurs and investors to develop solutions for the shrimp market and the entire seafood sector. Their innovations pave the road to change by providing ways to collect reliable data and to keep that data attached to products from the farm or ship to the table. As an added benefit, the data collected can build scientific knowledge about fishery stocks and guide sustainable fisheries management.

The business opportunity is significant: the market for food traceability products and technologies is expected to grow to $14.1 billion by 2019, according to Allied Market Research. That growth is fueled by increased government reporting requirements, consumers who want to know where their food comes from, and businesses answering to both regulators and customers. (For details, see the Fish 2.0 market report on traceability.)

Traceability-focused companies are well-represented in this year’s Fish 2.0 competition for sustainable seafood businesses. We see companies focusing on traceability in various aspects of their business strategy, ranging from developing new technologies that capture data at the source to creating consumer products and brands based on transparent sustainability information. Presenters at Fish 2.0’s final event (taking place Nov. 10 to 11 at Stanford University) include:

  • Pelagic Data Systems, a California-based company that provides remote data capture for boats at sea. Its system uses a solar-powered plastic box, installed on each vessel, that passively gathers data on the catch and uploads it to databases via cellular networks. Information on boat and catch weight, movement, temperature, time and other factors is aggregated on a dashboard.
  • Shellcatch, another California company, also provides remote data capture and vessel monitoring, with the addition of visual identification—video taken of the catch on the boat.
  • TRUfish, based in North Carolina, offers DNA testing of sample fish from batches, allowing resellers and consumers to find out what species is actually being sold. According to a 2013 Oceana study, one-third of all seafood sold at groceries and restaurants in the U.S. is misidentified, creating possible health and safety problems. After processing, much fish meat simply looks too much alike to distinguish species by sight, and the TRUfish system could reduce fraud.
  • LoveWild Fish Co., based in Colorado, sells traceable sustainable fish (packaged with gourmet sauces) bought from Marine Stewardship Council–certified fisheries, and from aquaculture operations that meet Global Aquaculture Alliance guidelines.
  • FairAgora Asia, a CSR consulting firm based in Thailand and also working in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, is developing an online system (called VerifiK-8) for fisheries and farmed aquaculture that will track compliance with various environmental and social certification systems.
  • New Mexico Shrimp Co. is meeting the demand for traceable shrimp by farming with environmentally sustainable practices. Its shrimp are grown without preservatives or antibiotics—in the Southwestern desert. The company expanded from one to three facilities in just two years of operation, and is planning for another eight by 2016.

Companies like these illustrate why we founded the Fish 2.0 competition two years ago: there’s a real need to connect seafood innovators with investors to bring solutions like these to the marketplace. One in eight people worldwide relies directly or indirectly on the seafood industry, but about 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or in danger of overexploitation, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Traceability is an essential factor in enabling both better resource management and fair working conditions.

Creating systems that allow us to develop the world’s aquaculture resources responsibly, manage fisheries sustainably and ensure that the seafood industry supports good jobs and healthy habitats worldwide is going to be good business over the long haul.

Image credit: Flickr/Laszlo Ilyes

Monica Jain is the founder and executive director of Fish 2.0 and Manta Consulting Inc. She has worked for over 20 years in the private sector and philanthropy, and specializes in creating innovative financing strategies and structures for impact investors, foundations, and private sector–nonprofit partnerships. Follow her @fish20org.

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One response

  1. Hi Monica,

    This is a critical area of sustainability and glad to see initiatives like yours taking hold. While labelling including country of origin and sustainability of the seafood source are important to allow consumers to make the right choices, legislation can help. Here in Australia there is a movement to legislate as a start the country of origin of seafood purchased at retail (this already happening quite well) and all supermarket purchased fish, but also at restaurants including the humble fish & chips shop.

    Another area hardly discussed is the fish meal industry (particularly the unsustainable practices in Peru), which mainly goes to feed industrially processed meat.

    Good luck with your initiative.

    Lars Lohmann

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