Until about five years ago, traceability in the seafood industry was virtually non-existent.
There were only two scenarios when traceability was demanded, says Dick Jones, executive director of Ocean Outcomes, a non-profit working to improve the sustainability of fisheries globally: if a retailer requested a recall of a certain product, or if they rejected a product.
“And even then there is one only one up, one down visibility along the supply chain,” he says. “There was no attention paid to whether the product was actually what it claimed to be species-wise, or whether it came from the fishery that the supplier said it did. Obviously, the strong growth in the sustainability movement has promoted the need for better traceability and transparency in the system.
In comparison to the agriculture sector, which still has challenges tracking the journey of food, the seafood industry is years behind.
“The seafood industry hasn’t come up to speed in understanding the farm-to-table movement; it’s a dinosaur that’s mostly written out on fish tickets, ordered over the phone, and relationship-based,” said Sean Dimin, co-founder of Sea-to-Table at the recent Mixing Bowl event in New York.
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Sea-to-Table is one a small number of startups hoping to tackle opacity in the seafood industry. As the industry looks to rectify its failings, startups are emerging in a relatively fragmented way to tackle different parts of the supply chain, according to Melissa Garren, chief scientific officer of Pelagic Data Systems, another startup in the segment.
Traceability technologies were a key talking point at the recent SeaWeb Seafood Summit last month where Jones and Garren both spoke.
“The challenge has been identified after decades of unreported and unregulated fishing, and with growing global dialogue on the topic, and realization of the data and information that didn’t exist before, solutions are coming quickly,” he says. “Traceability will definitely become mandatory at some point as it’s imperative for food safety and security that we all know where our food comes from. I think we have a lot to learn from other industries like pharmaceuticals, and there have been a lot of conferences on this recently. Interoperability of the various solutions will be the main challenge.”
It’s not just about transparency in the system and knowing where your food comes from; having a traceable seafood industry is just good business sense for companies too, argues Thomas Kraft, founder of Norpac Fisheries Export, a fishing company and traceability software provider.
“There is much more of a business benefit than a traceability benefit. It’s a very informative data stream for a variety of stakeholders in the supply chain,” he said. “You can capture the length of fish, for example, and decide only to purchase fish of a certain length and, therefore, maturity to help ensure the sustainability of the fish source. This can impact the whole supply chain. You can also track different yields and different grades of fish.”
Here are a few startups getting a head start on seafood traceability.
Founded in 2014, Pelagic is building small, rugged, solar-powered sensor devices to capture data from small-scale fishery boats. The devices currently capture high-resolution geospatial data points at least every minute, recording where the boat is, how fast the boat is going, and in which direction. This data is then overlaid with regional zoning information such as protected waters. It can set alerts for if a boat enters an area it shouldn’t or is using fishing gear it shouldn’t, and it’s equipped with anti-tampering technology.
Pelagic data can integrate with other traceability systems which usually start from the dock, according to Garren.
The company is targeting small scale fisheries which represent 95 percent of fishing boats in the world, as the largest industrial fishing boats — 95,000 out of the 5 million in the world — are mandated to have satellite monitoring systems on their vessels.
“Currently very few if any have a tracking system, so we were responding to what we saw as a need and gap in data,” said Garren. “Regulations are starting to change. In the US environmental regulations are changing rapidly and requirements for importing are tightening. It’s not clear how this will impact small-scale fisheries, but there is a big push towards having more transparency and traceability.”
The company is engaging with regulators to try and understand what they will need in the future. “There is no concrete list yet, and I’m not sure the regulators have a clear picture of what to do about small vessels,” she said.
The company has created a prototype which is currently being tested in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. It has plans to incorporate temperature sensors to help with cold chain verification and incentivize the use of ice onboard boats, as well as other potential sensors.
Norpac Fisheries Export is a fisheries company based in Seattle and Honolulu that developed an in-house processing management and traceability system in 2004 called Insite Solution. This in-house system became available to third parties four years ago and integrates with clients’ sales orders systems.
“It replaces paper-based recording systems and tracks seafood all the way into the value-added products it’s broken down into,” says Thomas Kraft, founder of the company. “We also track packaging such as all the components of a sashimi tray including the chopsticks.”
After capture, all fish are assigned a unique serial number with information about the vessel, date, capture location, catch method, species and weight. At receiving they are scanned, the temperature is recorded, they are tagged with their barcode, and stored in a temperature controlled environment. Many fish are pre-tagged for specific customers and travel with their barcode, which is scanned at each stage of processing, and packaging. At the distribution of the end product, the fish ingredient’s barcode is linked to a shipping carton for logistics tracking to the end destination.
“Other companies are tracking fish through the supply chain but not when they change form into food products, which is where we differ,” said Kraft.
Sea-to-Table is a family-run business that’s bypassing the traditional seafood distribution chain in the US to help chefs source sustainable seafood. It works with 44 independent fishermen and commercial docks around the US to source and then ship fish directly to over 1,000 chefs at restaurants and institutions in 46 states.
Ecotrust Canada, a non-profit organization, launched ThisFish in 2013 as a global seafood tracking software. Fish harvesters identify their catch with a unique code using a tag or label and upload the information to ThisFish.info. Other people in the supply chain can also upload information about their handling and shipping of fish. Then consumers can trace the QR code of the seafood they buy to discover its story and connect with the harvester.
ThisFish is partnered with a range of different companies, technologies, and NGOs including, Canadian Council for Professional Fish Harvesters, West Coast Trollers Association, Maritime Fishermen’s Union, Wageningen University BESTTuna Project, Conservation International in Hawaii, and Point 97 (Ecotrust USA).
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Shellcatch provides remote data capture and vessel monitoring, with visual identification and a video taken of the catch on the boat.
TRUfish, based in North Carolina, offers DNA testing of sample fish from batches, allowing resellers and consumers to find out what species is actually being sold. After processing, much fish meat looks too much alike to distinguish species by sight, so the TRUfish system aims to reduce fraud.
FairAgora Asia, a CSR consulting firm based in Thailand and also working in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, is developing an online system called VerifiK-8 for fisheries and farmed aquaculture to track compliance with various environmental and social certification systems.
Are you a startup with a seafood traceability technology? Get in touch on [email protected].