Next time you go out for seafood, try asking the server if your dish was sustainably caught.
If you’re like me, you’ll often get a response along the lines of, “Well of course, our seafood is always fresh.” Only on few occasions may the server understand the root of your question, “Where was this fish caught, was it harvested responsibly, and how did it make its way to my plate?”
Unfortunately, these questions are not easy to answer.
More than 90% of fisheries in the world, representing more than half the global catch, lack adequate information to determine the health of the stock, and thus, if the current harvest is sustainable. Fisheries with little or no data are rarely managed and their supply chains are often complex and untraceable. Even sustainably managed and responsibly caught seafood can quickly get mixed with seafood from other sources involved with illegal fishing and seafood fraud.
The Nature Conservancy has partnered with Primo Indo Ikan Fishing Co., an Indonesian seafood processing and exporting company, to try and to change all that by developing a technology that collects data at the plant; we call this our Smart-scale Weighing System.
In April, I traveled to meet our Conservancy team in Indonesia to see how this technology works first hand. The Conservancy team has developed a detailed species by species guide for the 100+ fish caught in this fishery and assigned barcodes to each species. Tracing the fish starts by identifying each fish from a boat’s catch down to the species-level and recording this information via a barcode scanner.
Fish are weighed on a digital scale and passed on to the system’s unique measuring board, which has barcodes that can be scanned to upload each fish’s length to a digital database. Tracking information taken from a GPS device on the fishing boat is also linked to the database. New barcodes with all this information are printed and sent along with the fish as they are packaged and delivered to the next buyer.
I met with Lucas Papierniak, the Director of Primo Indo Ikan, who gave me a tour of the plant where the Conservancy and Primo Indo Ikan are piloting this new technology. The system flowed with impressive precision and speed; the workers seemed to have no problems using the new system.
“The data that we are collecting helps us understand the status of fish population,” says Papierniak. “We want to have real accurate information about the fish stocks, whether it’s good or bad.”
Monitoring the status of the fish stock is the first step in managing a fishery sustainably. Data monitoring has just begun, but eventually this information could help guide management.
“Our program, whether it leads to size limits, or closures, whatever it is, the eventual goal is that we are protecting the stock for future generations, and that helps us to stay alive as a business,” says Papierniak.
Papierniak would like the information they collect through the Smart-scale Weighing System to eventually make its way to the consumer, who he hopes may be willing to pay a premium to confidently know what they are eating and if it’s sustainably or ethically harvested. It’s not often that price premiums are given for sustainably sourced seafood, especially if it isn’t associated with an eco-label, however the Smart-scale Weighing System may set Primo Indo Ikan apart from the competition by securing access to the top global markets or guaranteeing shelf space with buyers.
It’s my hope that other processing and distributing companies will take notice of the increased resource security and market access gained by Primo Indo Ikan and adopt similar data collection and traceability policies. Through partnerships with companies like Primo Indo Ikan, The Nature Conservancy is supporting sustainable fishing practices, helping fishers and processers get the most benefit for their product, and contributing to a movement that allows consumers like myself to become more informed about the seafood I purchase and avoid the possibility of inadvertently supporting seafood fraud and overfishing.
Costello C, Ovando D, Hilborn R, Gaines S, Deschenes O and Lester S. 2012. Status and Solutions for the World’s Unassessed Fisheries. Science, 338 (6106): 517-520. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6106/517
Pramond G, Nakamura K, Pitcher T and Delagran L. 2014. Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA. Marine Policy, 38: 102-113. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X14000918
Primo Indo Ikan Fishing Co. https://vimeo.com/76313515
By Jeremy Rude, Fisheries Specialist at The Nature Conservancy