Op-ed: Better data in the time of COVID-19: Opportunities for advancing eCDT in wild-capture fisheries

Marah Hardt is the director of discovery at Future of Fish.

Marah Hardt is the director of discovery at Future of Fish, an international nonprofit that works with small-scale fishers to empower thriving coastal communities, ensure food security, and achieve long-term social impact while lowering the sector’s environmental footprint.

This op-ed also benefits from contributions from Fiona Lugo-Mulligan (FoF) and Helen Packard (World Benchmarking Alliance).

Impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the weaknesses of existing systems within fisheries management and the seafood trade – including a need for improved traceability and data systems.

In doing so, the pandemic could serve as the push that truly accelerates digital transformation of the sector. Taking advantage of this unique situation will depend upon practitioners effectively advocating for and designing electronic catch documentation and traceability (eCDT) systems to meet emerging market demands and new regulations. Lessons learned from a recent small grants study funded by the Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability (SALT), provide insights that can help do just that.

Momentum for data modernization in seafood was already building in the seafood sector. Before the pandemic, industry had been making marked progress, with initiatives such as the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability (GDST) and several pilots underway under USAID Oceans and Fisheries Partnership. The COVID-19 crisis, however, has impacted fisheries in ways that specifically reveal data-related vulnerabilities. These include: loss of observer coverage and other enforcement capacities in many fisheries, creating opportunity for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; inability of auditors to travel to conduct certifications and inspections; and limitations in supply-chain management due to lack of transparency and access to reliable, near-realtime information. As it turns out, all of these challenges can be mitigated significantly by digitally transforming fisheries and industry data systems. Today, governments and seafood businesses are recognizing the importance of electronic traceability for creating resilient supply chains, and are starting to invest more money and resources in digital systems.

Through SALT’s small grant program, Future of Fish has been researching how to identify the diverse benefits that eCDT systems can provide, depending on system design and the technologies included. The project ran from Spring 2020 through August 2021 and revealed three main findings that can benefit those looking to advance the uptake of eCDT in fisheries.

First, eCDT systems generate both direct and indirect benefits, with the indirect benefits falling into distinct and dependent tiers. Direct benefits are limited to improved data quality, improved data access, and improved timeliness. Improved data quality results mainly from a decrease in data gaps, reduced data errors, and an increase in data richness (diversity, granularity, and volume of information recorded and shared). Improved data access occurs when increasing numbers of individuals who require fisheries-related information to execute their work can more readily input or retrieve relevant data. This benefit also improves data capture, sharing, monitoring, and reporting capabilities. Improved data timeliness results from new efficiencies in moving data, which also allow greater control over data, by catching and fixing errors faster and increasing responsiveness – in both governance and business contexts.

Tiers 2, 3, and 4 are the indirect benefits and include: increased data analysis and reporting (Tier 2), which then paves the way for benefits related to increased strategic decision-making (Tier 3), which then set the conditions for Tier 4: improved management or business performance. Tier 4 includes benefits such as increased biomass, reduced IUU, reduced operational costs, and increased market access. While Tier 4 benefits are often the overarching goal of business or government agencies, they cannot be realized without first ensuring the successful generation of conditions related to Tier 1, 2, and 3.

The second major takeaway from the study is that all of the indirect benefits (Tiers 2-4) depend upon strong data governance – processes that establish who has access to what data, for which purposes, and how to apply that data to decision-making within governments and businesses. Designing a robust data governance system is critical to effectively using the data generated by eCDT for management, enforcement, or market purposes. This learning aligns well with SALT’s eCDT principle: use data to inform decision-making. As noted in other sectors: technology itself only generates the data; it does not dictate how that data is used to inform best practices.

The third key finding is that end-to-end traceability and eCDT pilots to date have generated limited hard evidence of the existence of potential social, economic, and environmental benefits that the systems should theoretically manifest. This is likely due to three important factors: 1) many of these case studies remain nascent, and the timeframe for different benefits to manifest has simply not be reached; 2) governance structures to apply the data generated by eCDT are not in place; and 3) robust monitoring and evaluation programs are not included in pilot design.

The first issue simply requires more time to address. For the second point, many organizations are currently developing the multi-stakeholder engagement tools and resources needed for effective data governance development, including the Net Gains Alliance and recent work by WWF Peru, as well as the E.U. (via a proposed Data Governance Act, introducing a set of measures as part of the 2020 European strategy for data).

Feedback provided by multiple experts during the small grants study emphasized that the governance structures step is critical, and must come before any decisions about hardware or software specifications. In particular, ensuring stakeholders are clear about what problems they need or want to address with the eCDT system, and what data is needed to answer those questions, is fundamental to project success. Once those objectives are clear, then discussions can proceed about how to design a system that can generate the data and the processes needed to achieve the objectives. SALT’s eCDT principle: be inclusive and collaborative with stakeholders, informs an equitable pathway towards identifying and creating these clear objectives.

To help address the third challenge – the lack of monitoring and evaluation within pilots – the small grants study included developing a prototype evaluation framework to help practitioners identify metrics that they can collect and analyze in order to evaluate whether or not certain benefits are occurring. This framework may also help practitioners during the design stage to consider which economic, environmental, and social benefits they want to achieve. The framework serves as a starting point for supporting robust M&E and will be improved by future testing in the field under upcoming eCDT pilots that SALT is helping to support.

Today, more and more seafood businesses recognize the need for greater transparency and traceability, especially due to COVID-19, and more governments are understanding the enormous potential for digital transformation to support effective management. The time is ripe to advance uptake of well-designed and comprehensive eCDT systems that can not only alleviate the pain points revealed during the pandemic, but also support long-term sustainable and responsible management of wild-capture fisheries.

Photo courtesy of Marah Hardt/Future of Fish


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