August 2021: Traceability – The Key to Better Fisheries and Aquaculture?

As we already know, aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food production areas and one of the most important sources of food, nutrition, income and livelihoods for millions of people worldwide.

We also hear much about its potential and benefits, but juggling sustainable practices, local regulations and proof of quality can be difficult, and for consumers this can cast doubt on the quality of seafood that is coming from aquaculture. Regulators, food processors, fish farms, buyers and suppliers all need a way to share accurate and trusted information with their customers. Although it’s developing rapidly, aquaculture also has a reputation as an under-regulated industry, and consumers today are wary of farm-raised seafood even as the industry grows.

One way for aquaculture to build confidence in the integrity of its work is to improve its traceability. With effective traceability measures, it becomes possible to verify operational sustainability, while there are also financial and environmental incentives. Traceability can also limit product recalls and investor risk, and improve profitability. Investors can also play a part by talking to the firms they’ve invested in about how traceability can help increase profitability and sustainability. They could also help to weigh up the pros and cons of a company’s initiatives, and work out how they can move forward. Being transparent is a great opportunity for farms and companies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

There is still a lot of work to be done for aquaculture firms to take full advantage of increased traceability, but many of them see it as a key sustainability goal. One such company is Grieg Seafood BC. In September last year, it received its sixth and final Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) multi-site certificate for its Sunshine Coast and Okisollo Channel farms in British Columbia. The certificate is the largest globally with a total of six farms. Certification is one way of enabling aquaculture to demonstrate responsible farming practices by complying with national legislation, minimising environmental impact and making the best use of locally available resources. Under the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s certification scheme, fish farms are assessed by independent organisations (certifying bodies) against a range of principles including environmental and water resource preservation, diversity of species and wild populations, animal health, social responsibility and responsible use of animal feed and other resources.

Grieg has also recently partnered with Scoot Science in Santa Cruz to launch the SeaState Dashboard, an ocean analytics and data management platform that will provide real-time data on ocean environmental conditions to Grieg’s salmon farms in British Columbia. By using sensor networks on farms, the platform will show how salmon farms react to changing ocean conditions and will be available to universities, scientists and indigenous groups to access in order to study ocean trends and understand the interaction between ecological systems and the changing ocean environment. Other data, including Grieg’s sea lice numbers and compliance with regulatory bodies, will be made publicly available in line with Grieg’s transparency goals.

Recognising the growing consumer demand for food-production information, salmon producer Mowi is also taking steps. It’s created a traceability platform that lets shoppers see, via smartphone app, how the company operates and raises its fish, with information about origin, farming and harvesting activities. Readily available technology is becoming increasingly important for companies as an increasing number of them move towards sharing their production processes and more with the public.

Traceability is also critical to sustainable fisheries management. For the fishing industry, effective traceability measures can help to reduce stocks from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing passing through the supply chain and onto our plates. Businesses can verify the environmental sustainability and social responsibility of products they purchase. Companies and investors can be protected from regulatory and reputational risks. Producers and suppliers who maintain sustainable practices can get the recognition they have earned, and governments can better manage their resources.

Global standards, such as the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST), are a promising step in the traceability journey. Released last year, their goal is to enable industry-wide traceability from individuals on mobile phones to large seafood companies and retailers. GDST is an international, business-to-business platform of stakeholders from different areas of the seafood supply chain. Various companies can join to become part of discussions, consultations and contribute to the evolution of seafood standards and better traceability. They can also get help in disclosing their annual seafood sourcing details by becoming part of the Ocean Disclosure Project (ODP), a Sustainable Fisheries Partnership project that promotes traceability in the seafood industry. Retailers, suppliers, and others can disclose their wild-caught and farmed seafood sourcing alongside information on the environmental performance of each source. Consumers can access all ODP company profiles and other known disclosures through the ODP website.

Another company that impressed me last year with their work on traceability is fishing company Usufuku Honten in Kesennuma city, northeast Japan. Usufuku Honten hit headlines in the west last August when it received Marine Stewardship Council certification for its Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery. Located in an area that was devastated by the March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Usufuku Honten saw the tragic events as a new start and an opportunity to help local industries including fisheries and aquaculture gain more recognition.

Today, president Sotaro Usui is part of a programme that promotes fish caught in Kesennuma city at schools. Through engaging classes, fun activities and lessons on the importance of primary industries, children get to meet fishermen and hear about their work, eat locally caught or produced seafood for lunch and visit seafood markets. Usui believes that education, from a young age, and making fisheries and aquaculture appear fun are two key ways to be transparent (Photos below courtesy of Usufuku Honten).

The importance of public education is being noticed outside Japan, too. A few years ago, the FAO held a workshop in Spain on increasing understanding and acceptance among the public and the important role of traceability. Participants acknowledged the significant gap in consumers’ knowledge of fisheries and aquaculture and the inconsistent and inaccurate ways in which information is being communicated, resulting in issues of trust between industry and consumers. Participants suggested that acknowledging and learning from past mistakes could create a better image, as well as emphasising interest in good environmental conditions and healthy fish stocks but even more importantly, there is a need for fisheries and aquaculture to tell a good story. Rather than just sharing scientific facts, both industries need to deliver messages that can be understood and trusted by the public, maybe by working with chefs or nutritionists, or showing how fisheries and aquaculture can improve the livelihoods of local communities. This is why I really love Usui’s approach. Although important, I don’t think that certifications and global standards are the only way forward – fisheries and aquaculture can do so much more by telling interesting stories, highlighting its support for good environmental conditions and healthy fish stocks, and perhaps sharing other information such as the health benefits of fish, not only focusing on wild vs farmed.

What Next?
Fisheries and aquaculture have been doing their utmost to make seafood one of the most sustainable and safest food sources. However, this only matters if all of us, from regulators to consumers, can trust that we aren’t being misled. By focusing on traceability and embedding trust throughout the production chain, fisheries and aquaculture can help to ensure a more sustainable food supply, both now and in the future.

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