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Blockchain Technology to Help Fight Slavery in the Fishing Industry

Last Updated October 6, 2020 6:37 PM
Lester Coleman
Last Updated October 6, 2020 6:37 PM

A U.K. food co-op is testing blockchain technology to verify that fish providers are not using slave labor, according to The Guardian . The seafood industry is notorious for human rights abuses and illegal fishing.

Tesco, the U.K.’s largest supermarket, has stopped using a certain fish provider over the need to ensure it was using sustainable tuna.

The blockchain ledger tracks the origins of fish, allowing anyone to see where the fish was caught, processed and sold. It does not stop illegal fishing on its own, but it provides anyone the ability to track the fish through the supply chain.

Human Rights Abuses Rampant

Because human rights abuses and illegal fishing are so widespread in the fish industry, campaigners hope the technology, piloted by a U.K.-based blockchain company Provenance, will help manufacturers, retailers and restaurants track the origins of their fish.

Image courtesy: BBC

Steve Trent, executive director at the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said creating a mechanism to provide transparency from “net to plate” is key to eliminating illegal, unsustainable fishing, along with human rights abuses that have plagued the seafood industry.

The buying and selling of seafood is currently tracked by paper records and tags on the fish. With the blockchain, fishermen send SMS messages to register their catch on the blockchain. This identification is then sent to a supplier along with the catch. Any additional moves, such as processing or tinning, are also recorded.

Replacing Printed Labels

The information about the fish’s journey through the supply chain can then be accessed and verified by consumers in shops or restaurants using their smartphones. The system replaces printed labels.

The Co-op Food group, a consumer co-op and one of the U.K.’s largest food retailers, is conducting a trial with Provenance on fresh food products.

Jessi Baker, the founder of Provenance, said the technology adds a “few pence” to the price of the final product. Hence, it is likely to be used first on premium fish products, or wine or olive oil. Baker said the cost will have to fall to “points of a pence” to be viable for canned and processed fish produce.

The industry needs a solution, Baker said. The industry wants to support sustainably caught fish and be able to verify claims throughout the supply chain, and support the market for slavery-free fish. The pilot has demonstrated that global supply chains can be made transparent with blockchain technology.

Fish Exporter Wants Traceability

Thai Union, the world’s largest tuna exporter, has welcomed the Provenance trial. Thai Union has been criticized for sustainability issues. Tesco, the U.K.’s largest food retailer, stopped stocking the Thai Union’s John West brand this past July, citing the company’s need to ensure it was using sustainable tuna.

Dr. Darian McBain, director of sustainability at Thai Union, said traceability allows the company to prove its fish is caught legally and sustainably, and that safe labor conditions are being followed throughout the supply chain.

McBain said the next challenges are to build scalability so that traceability systems can operate across borders and certification authorities, as well as educating consumers it is worth paying more for sustainably-caught fish where workers are paid fairly.
The EJF’s Trent said the technology on its own will not end the abuses.

He said it is also necessary to support actions and mechanisms to fight the abuses. This includes having effective enforcement of actions and applying fair, strong and transparent action in courts to levy robust penalties.

Sustainability Demand Grows

In the U.K., 30% of consumers are concerned about the origin of products, but they struggle to act on this through their purchasing decisions, Provenance noted on its website . But the market for products of proven origin is growing.

Regulations such as the European directive on non-financial reporting or the U.K. Modern Slavery Act will require companies to disclose information about their business footprint.

John West began including codes on its tuna cans to allow consumers to trace the product back to the fisherman. This initiative added £17 million to the brand’s sales.

Proven Sustainability?

Sustainability standards and certification systems (e.g., Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council and Soil Association) have helped to enable choice differentiation and conscientious consumption, but certification is often just an image file or printed label on the packaging whose actual meaning is hard to verify.

Guaranteeing the integrity of certificates is an expensive process that struggles to assure the validity of the claims.

Full “chains of custody” that tell the stories of products are largely rudimentary and difficult to verify. In addition, fragmentation of these efforts make them open to fraud.

To “connect the dots,” nominally neutral, not-for-profit or governmental entities are called upon to create a centralized data storage to enable a flow of trusted information.

The blockchain presents a new approach. A recent development in the field of computer science, the blockchain uses a global, peer-to-peer network to provide an open platform that can deliver security, reliability and neutrality.

Images from Shutterstock.