Where Did It Come From, Where Did It Go: The Digital Future of Fisheries

Sometimes it is hard to look at the future with optimism. We seem to be facing crises in every facet of life, be it the humanitarian, environmental or economic side. From the ongoing pandemic to the antimicrobial resistance crisis, to climate change and the biodiversity crisis, it’s clear we need to be coming up with innovative solutions left right and centre and, just as importantly, acting on them effectively.

All the aforementioned crises directly affect one of the world’s most pressing concerns – food security. The human population is growing and with it, food demand. Meanwhile, food security is diminishing. 

Part of the answer to supplying a growing world with enough food is the fisheries industry. Yet unsustainable fishing is depleting fish stocks and becoming an increasingly large problem. But despite what Seaspiracy may have led you to believe, the world deciding not to eat fish is not the answer (and I say that as someone who doesn’t eat fish). As well as being an ecological crisis, the collapse of fisheries is a humanitarian issue. A vast proportion of the human population depends on fishing for their food source and their livelihood. So the real question is: how can we manage fisheries sustainably? There are many ways to improve the sustainability of fisheries, from using LEDs to reduce bycatch to temporary closures, but here we are going to look at one of the biggest themes within the world of fisheries right now: traceability.

Mislabelling and Fish Fraud

Mislabelling may sound more like marketing and semantics than an ecological issue, but it is a big problem. Many nations have laws asserting that seafood must be labelled with its origin. Knowing where a fish is caught makes it much easier for us to figure out whether or not a certain region or species is being fished sustainably. Yet the reality is that it’s very hard to determine the origin of an item of seafood when it comes from solitary boats out at sea. Fishing happens in remote locations across the world, and the supply chain from its catch to your local supermarket or restaurant can cross many borders.

Mislabelling has a number of consequences. It can impact consumer health and consumer trust. It can disguise illegal practices such as the harvest of endangered species. It can mean that fish labelled as ‘sustainable’ is actually coming from unsustainable practices. But it is a very complex problem that needs a complex network of solutions. 

Fish fraud is a specific issue where fish is deliberately mislabelled and desirable fish like wild salmon, Atlantic cod or red snapper are replaced with less desirable, more readily available fish for the seller’s gain, for example, to improve profit margins. However, it is not as simple as just treating fish fraud and mislabelling as synonymous terms – while deliberate fish fraud is a problem, a lot of mislabelling occurs because of the complex supply chain, as well as mistranslations and miscommunications arising from different languages and cultural fishing practices.

That said, fraud and mislabelling detection enhances traceability and helps to identify whether fish are originating from sustainable fisheries. It can also encourage customer confidence and result in indirect impacts such as public pressure on governments to better monitor fish stocks and increase funding for sustainable fisheries management practices.

Image Credit: Patou Ricard, Pixabay licence

How To Trace Seafood

Many aspects of the fishing industry are being digitalised in an attempt to improve traceability across the complex supply chain. As with many industries at the moment, data sharing is key to this. Blockchain applications are being developed to improve the digital supply chain. Meanwhile, machine learning, cloud computing and satellite technology are just some examples of technologies being used to monitor and track fishing activity, shedding light on several issues from illegal fishing to forced-labour practices. Electric monitoring practices using cameras on boats are also becoming more commonplace in the industry.

Then there is genetic analysis. Genetic analysis is one of the greatest tools for improving traceability and forensically identifying mislabelling. Using simple DNA analysis methods, we can get more information about whether the fish finger from your local Tesco a) is what it says it is and b) comes from where it says it comes from. 

DNA barcoding is increasingly being used within ecology, especially within the world of fisheries. Online databases like FISH-BOL, a global project that began in 2005, record the DNA ‘barcodes’ of fish species, including a large proportion of the world’s commercial fishes. As well as being able to improve problems at their root by improving fisheries management and assisting with ecological analyses like the clarification of marine food webs, this reference library is a key player in detecting fish fraud and mislabelling.

DNA barcoding. Diagram created by the author.

How Can We Implement These Systems?

The fishing industry covers a broad range of vessels from artisanal boats carrying out sustenance fishing to industrial fleets. And it needs to be recognised that smaller vessels might not be able to afford to implement the fancy tech and genetic testing that the larger companies can. Realistically, while applying solutions like genetic analysis throughout the supply chain is the ideal goal, it is not going to be achievable in the short term. 

There needs to be a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach, with political willpower and legislative changes supporting smaller fishers and helping them to incorporate efficient traceability into their process. It’s not hopeless – traceability technologies that take advantage of mobile phones already exist, allowing smaller vessels to be a part of the traceability chain by simply having a phone onboard.

It’s in everyone’s interest to implement better traceability within the fishing industry – it means that consumers get what they pay for, it could improve the working conditions for fishers and help fight humanitarian issues such as forced-labour, and the companies at the top will even make more money if they are not shelling out on things like product recall and legal fees. However, it should be noted that tracing the fish supply chain needs to be carried out exhaustively and effectively to avoid partial tracing that ends up greenwashing the situation.

This article has by no means been exhaustive of a very complex issue. But, hopefully, it has got across the fact that the future of sustainable fisheries is much more complex than just ‘not eating fish’, and that a huge part of achieving sustainability lies in achieving efficient and effective traceability within the industry. It is far from a hopeless issue and there are lots of practices out there that could change the tide on the fishing industry with the right understanding, funding and political willpower.


Sophia Coveney is a scientific editor and master’s student studying Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. She has a passion for anything and everything sea turtle related and is currently realising how little lab work goes to plan whilst researching population genetics in Atlantic green turtles. You can find her twitter here and her editorial profile here.

Title Image Credit: Arek Socha, Pixabay license, Image Cropped

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