Assessing Risk in Seafood Supply Chains Takes Technology and Teamwork

New collaboration aims to shed light on the seafood industry through the development of new risk assessment tools.

Linwood Pendleton is senior vice president for science at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Ocean

The opaqueness of modern global supply chains leaves a lot of room for bad behavior in the production of a myriad of products, including seafood. While greater transparency, along with sustainability and human rights best practices, are increasingly integrated into how fisheries are conducted worldwide, there are still unscrupulous actors practicing activities that can hurt both the planet and the law-abiding people that work in the fishing sector.

Global Fishing Watch has pioneered the use of satellite data to bring greater transparency and understanding of human activity at sea, including behavior that may indicate suspicious or illegal activity. Now, in collaboration with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) Ocean, World Economic Forum and Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, it is seeking to create new innovative tools to better assess the risk of illegality in the seafood supply chain. The joint effort aims to harness big data and technology, along with on-the-water expertise, to help determine whether seafood products come from legal, sustainable and ethical sources.

Why does seafood seem so fraught?

The origin of our seafood has long been a mystery to many of us. The harvesting of ocean resources, especially animals, has been the grist for seafaring sagas and even a major driver for global exploration.

As long as 42,000 years ago, inhabitants of what is now Timor Leste began fishing well offshore. And in more recent history, the 16th century began a period when Europeans set sail for the high seas and beyond to hunt whales and subsequently fish, especially cod. The use of salt and drying methods allowed vessels to stay at sea for months while fishing. Today, refrigeration and on-board processing mean some vessels may not return to port for years at a time.

These long-distance fishing operations put much of the seafood supply chain out of sight, making them difficult to monitor and regulate. In the absence of such oversight, some actors in the supply chain have engaged in environmentally destructive practices, human rights violations, and even murder.

Adding to the lack of accountability is the challenge in determining the origin or species of catch once it has been processed and distributed. For years, this lack of transparency had little market impact. Unaware of potential environmental and human rights abuses, consumer demand for seafood grew substantially over the past decades, driven by a desire for healthy, nutritious and delicious food sources for a growing population. Increasingly, though, consumers are becoming more aware of the risks associated with poorly regulated or illegal fishing. But without good information about where seafood comes from and how it is caught, raised and processed, buying seafood is often compared to a game of roulette. Consumers take their chances and can only hope their seafood was harvested and processed in a way that didn’t harm the planet or those working in the industry.

Using new technologies to assess seafood risk

Fortunately, new technologies are creating more ways to gather information about the seafood supply chain. Legal fishers now participate in boat-to-table programs that connect fishers directly with customers, including apps for tracking seafood from the net to restaurant.

And there are blockchain technologies to track seafood from sea to consumer—a way of guaranteeing the high standards of certain seafood products. Regrettably, the proportion of the total catch covered by these highly accurate transparency approaches remains extremely small. Certification schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council and its cousin, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, use audits and other types of assessments to convey information about larger collectives of fishers and aquaculture producers through labelling and certification. These efforts are impossible to enforce with 100 percent certainty, however, leaving the vast majority of seafood neither fully verified nor certified. .

But that doesn’t mean the supply chain is entirely out of sight. Global Fishing Watch was one of the first organizations to fully exploit the ability of satellites to “watch” fishing vessels, even on the high seas. Satellites now make it possible to track fishing vessels using locator beacons on boats. When these vessels turn off their beacons, satellite imagery and radio frequency detectors allow satellites to continue to have “eyes” on these global fleets.

From vessel data to risk awareness

The amount of data collected and the number of ships that can be monitored is astonishing—Global Fishing Watch collects millions of detections every day, revealing the activity of as many as 65,000 fishing vessels. The only way to make sense of that much information is through artificial intelligence and other big data approaches that can determine whether vessel routes and behaviors may indicate suspicious or illegal activity. When combined with additional information about the characteristics and ownership of vessels, as well as the ports where they land fish, it is possible to deduce quite a bit about a fishing vessel’s adherence to regulations. But conveying the knowledge that is concluded from artificial intelligence to the customer is not straightforward. How is this knowledge conveyed? How accurate is it? Can the data be spoofed? Are there risks to sharing data about risks? What happens if artificial intelligence is wrong?

To answer these questions, Global Fishing Watch and C4IR Ocean—a new member of the World Economic Forum’s C4IR Network—are teaming up to harness the power of data and technology towards better ocean management. Innovation and science are at the heart of the collaboration, which seeks to understand any logistical, legal and ethical challenges that might stand in the way of implementing the seafood risk tool already being developed by the World Economic Forum and Stanford.

Working together, Global Fishing Watch and C4IR Ocean hope to bring policy, law and other disciplines to the table to find new ways of conveying seafood risk information to consumers that want to know more about their seafood choices. The findings will be open to all in an effort to increase transparency across all aspects of commercial fishing and aquaculture.

Linwood Pendleton is senior vice president for science at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Ocean

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