Blockchain could revolutionize seafood traceability

Published on
March 9, 2018

The value of bitcoin, the most well-known crypto-currency, have surged in the last few years, then peaked at the end of 2017, and are now on a roller-coaster route of ups and downs. Early investors are collecting piles of money, while other crypto-currency hucksters hawk get-rich-quick schemes.

Bitcoin may seem convoluted, obscure and detached from lived reality, existing solely in bits and bytes and serving only the techno-savvy. But there’s more to the new technology driving bitcoin – and it matters for the seafood industry.

The real bitcoin revolution isn’t necessarily about bitcoin itself; the underlying technology, called the blockchain, promises to remake the internet and, potentially, the seafood industry. It holds the potential to make fish catches more transparent and traceable, allowing consumers to refuse to buy illegally caught fish, or fish caught using slave labor.

Blockchain is a new way of storing data that does not rely on the centralized databases or servers of a single company or organization. Instead, blockchain technology allows a network of computers to store information in a distributed ledger that can’t be tampered with. Anyone can see the ledger at any time, while the network must approve each change, preventing tampering.

“Once information has been uploaded to the blockchain, it can be seen by everyone else and cannot be altered by any one party,” Candice Visser, a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at Australia’s University of Wollongong, told SeafoodSource. “There is great potential for blockchain to improve supply chain transparency, but it is only one part of the solution.”

Several organizations have launched trial projects to track seafood products using blockchain technology.

The World Wildlife Fund has started a project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to track fresh and frozen tuna in the Western and Central Pacific. The new blockchain-based project allows fishermen to register their catch on the internet using scannable electronic tags. Some of the first fish tracked in the project arrived at the dock in February.

The ultimate goal is to create a system where consumers can view the story of where and how a fish was caught by scanning the packaging with a smart phone. WWF is negotiating with several retail partners, and plans to expand the program to other Pacific fisheries. The long record of transactions can’t be altered, granting maximum transparency and integrity to the data. 

“Every user can be sure that the data they are retrieving is uncorrupted and unaltered since the moment it was recorded,” Alfred “Bubba” Cook, the Western and Central Pacific Tuna program manager for WWF-New Zealand, told SeafoodSource.

Blockchain on its own won’t prevent illegal fishing, but “for the first time, it will make that malfeasance ultimately discoverable and actionable, which is a big improvement over existing systems that, at minimum, allow for plausible deniability,” Cook said.

Blockchain technology also enables Smart Contracts, which can save significant time and money. In one recent example, Spanish banking giant BBVA paid for 25 tons of tuna using blockchain, completing the transaction in 2.5 hours rather than the normal seven-to-10 days.

“Time is money. No more shipments lost at the dock due to spoilage because agreements aren't executed in time and no need to pass signatures on paper through attorneys because the Smart Contracts would be agreed in advance,” Cook said.

Another organization called Earth Twine has created, along with technology partners, a blockchain-based platform to track seafood.

“Our system delivers complete transparency and can confirm and validate who, what, when, where, and how it was processed and transshipped,” Nancy O’Mallon, founder of Earth Twine, told SeafoodSource. “This true transparency enables consumers to track the product from its origin.”

Software improvements as well as better tags and sensors may need to be developed for blockchain-based product tracking to be truly effective and cost-efficient, Visser said. And while humans aren’t needed to maintain the databases, it still needs to be determined who will bear the costs of maintaining the system.

Blockchain holds promise, but it won’t solve the problem of illegal and mislabeled fish on its own, Visser said. Robust certification schemes are needed to ensure each player is following the rules, and the right sensors and trackers have to be physically attached to the fish. Consumers also need to be educated about the why transparency and sustainability are important.

“Blockchain also needs to be used appropriately – a scheme should be supported by adequate regulation, certification, and oversight mechanisms,” Visser said.

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