Future of Fish: Navigating the “grey netherworld” of the middle supply chain

Published on
October 1, 2020

Future of Fish (FOF), 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 environmental footprint, is focusing on an area in the logistics chain that most NGOs tend to shy away from – the middle.

Over ten years ago, when FOF was examining how to best address the overfishing crisis, “nobody was looking at the middle of the supply chain," according to Future of Fish Research Co-Director Marah Hardt said. 

"It’s not a sexy space to work for foundations. You’re in this grey netherworld of privately-owned businesses that are very fragmented, difficult to track down and tough to engage. It’s hard to show impact there," Hardt said. “NGOs and governments were focused on either fisher-based, or top-down market-driven solutions. There can be at least six to eight steps from fisher to retailer. You could find the fisher and maybe the first processor who might take the product and freeze it. Then it gets moved to another plant or exported, you keep moving down the chain in a lot of steps and many of those steps are not known, even to the other players in the chain,” Hardt told SeafoodSource.

After these findings, FOF decided on the need for traceability, and to identify where value gets locked up to the detriment of the fishers, the community, and small-scale market vendors. The NGO’s idea is to distribute value more equitably, and so the middle of the logistics chain necessarily came into focus, Hardt said, pointing to Chile as an example.

“You have your central terminal, where all the product gets transported to Santiago and then it gets re-distributed back down. Sort of like a FedEx model for fish, where everything goes through a central hub, which is based on the Japanese distribution model. But you have a huge coast in Chile and there isn’t great infrastructure for land movement, so there’s lots of inefficiencies and also a lot of power concentration,” she said. “In Chile, we’re looking at creating more direct routes between the fishing co-ops and the vendors, and using technology to verify that this is indeed legally caught product that has been well handled in moving it to the market.”

When getting started, FOF realized that traceability and data were critical, but missing.

“Without good data, you have no incentive for fishers to fish more responsibly or for companies to be more responsible. If they are more responsible, they can’t get recognition of this in the marketplace. All is lumped together and there’s no differentiation. And it’s easy to hide if you’re not responsible. That was the core finding – data-rich fisheries is critical for better management and better business. There’s lots of efficiencies to be gained if you have more information for your business intelligence,” Hardt said.

FOF was founded on the vision of learning from the industry players that are doing it right, and how to leverage that knowledge to aid fishers to scale. With a focus in Latin America – principally with artisan fishers from Chile, Peru, and Belize – the nonprofit embraces business-friendly approaches to solving problems.

“About two years ago, we decided that in order to get better data and move the system forward to tackle the middle, we needed to create positive incentives for the players to engage in the system,” Hardt said. “So we started to look at issues like where value is being lost due to inefficiencies or poor handling practices – how to improve the quality of the product. And in getting better quality, you help the fishers to access more markets and with that you can introduce training and the requirement to report data. Now, we’re working towards mutual goals with some benefit, and we can build in other conditions that lead to more environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and economically viable fisheries.”

Robust electronic systems can secure and verify data, providing timely and efficient information for effective management and business decisions, Hardt said.

“Our work in Chile is probably the most advanced, and we’re just now getting to the electronic point. We were really focused on the traceability system and pushing for the uptake of technology, and we realized that there are so many important enabling conditions that have to be in place before that technology actually brings a benefit,” Hardt said. One of the main issues is that government was often behind in adopting technology to be able to track and follow fishery development.

In this realm, FOF focused on bycatch – the incidental capture and discarding of non-targeted species and undersized fish, which can be damaging to biodiversity, particularly if it goes unmonitored and unregulated. To help improve bycatch and discard monitoring, Future of Fish partnered with Chile’s National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca) in 2018, assisting with the selection and installation of image recording devices (IRD) on industrial fleets in order to identify and track onboard practices.

Besides assisting with procurement and installation, FOF provided Sernapesca with related research from other parts of the world, coordinated a personnel visit to the U.S. Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to observe its robust monitoring system, and facilitated training sessions on images analysis.

The example is indicative of FOF’s twofold approach to introducing technology to drive positive change. One can be seen in the NGO’s approach in Belize with a co-op, helping to process a request for proposals (RFPs) from tech vendors.

“We have a guide with templates to help map the processing plant or data capture, whatever you need, how to put this into a proposal, and what are some of the channels you can release this to get bids, a well as another guide to how to screen bids and ask questions. A step-by-step guide to find the best technology and hopefully streamline the process so they know what they really need. Sometimes they automatically look to turn to tech to find solutions that aren’t necessarily tech related,” Hardt said.

The other approach is through partnerships.

“When we work in places, we work with partners – from local NGOs to technology providers to fisher associations – to learn about data needs, certain types of technology in terms of how they work and what types of problems they can solve. With that we can make recommendations on what we think would work. Part of the challenge is that you can’t just drop the technology in; you have to make it worthwhile, show what the benefits are, and then find financing," she said. "Many times, NGOs can put the tech into the hands of fishermen but they don’t have the long-term financing in place or the business model to help that fisher upkeep and maintain that technology. It’s at least a year or two for true uptake and implementation."

Hardt said that some signs of success are beginning to come through. In Chile, the focus on the supply chain has helped fishers – who are trialing a digital traceability system that will help capture more data – get a 20 percent increase on the prices of their catch. One FOF initiative is supporting the creation of a loan instrument for artisanal fishers, to be managed and depoloyed by a national deployment agency in Chile. Two years in, that initiative is currently providing grant funding to fisher associations; the next stage is to build out the loan instrument.

“We’ve been working with four different fisher associations in Chile for three years, and the fish are now moving in different chains, creating business partnerships between the co-ops and open-air market vendors, the technology is starting to happen, and finance is starting to shift the landscape,” Hardt said. “For us, success is when the fishers ask to continue working with us. We’re getting more and more invitations to work and partner with small NGOs in the countries. That’s a clear sign of the value and positive reputation we’ve been building for the work that we do. We’re part of coalitions that bring together groups and do a lot of facilitated co-design events that bring stakeholders together.”

Future of Fish was originally founded in 2008 as a project of the Packard Foundation, applying a solutions framework for complex problems. It now receives funding principally from other foundations, particularly the Walton Family Foundation. 

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