Something's 'Fishy' On The Blockchain, But Can This Tech Reduce Seafood Fraud?
Whitebait or halibut? Now, are you sure that the expensive “Wild-caught” Atlantic salmon you had for dinner last night was in fact the gourmet fish you thought it was? Or, was it just a cheaper farm-grown salmon – or perhaps not even salmon at all? This is not the shipping news, but you’ll get the picture pretty soon.
Moreover, can you be 100% sure the tasty white tuna sushi your local sushi bar serves is actually made from tuna – and not from escolar – also known as oil fish?
What is the big deal, you might ask. Well, escolar is quite notorious for its delicious, cheap and oily meat. Meat that causes intense stomach problems, in other words, nasty uncontrollable diarrhoea.
Now, how likely is it for a sushi restaurant to serve its hungry customers fish with such severe side effects? Or for that matter how common is fraud in general in the seafood industry? The whole scene will probably surprise the average person, if they have not already delved into some research about the topic. So, let us get down to the nub of it.
From 2010 to 2012, Oceana, one of the largest organizations focusing on studying oceans founded by a group of leading foundations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, conducted a study exploring fraud in the seafood industry. According to the research as much as one-third of seafood products in the United States (U.S.) were mislabelled. Shocked?
Furthermore, one in every three seafood products people purchase do not actually contain what the label says. This is the industry average. However, there are many species of fish that have a much higher percentage of fraud.
Seafood Fraud & Illegal Fishing
So, how big a problem is seafood fraud and illegal fishing activities? Well, “IUU” fishing activity, that is illegal, unregulated and unreported, have been estimated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the environmental intelligence agency of the U.S., to cost the global fishing industry between $10 billion and $23 billion per annum from prices being suppressed and lost revenues.
But since this figure is quite wide and from a few years ago, the actual number could be far higher.
As well as the huge economic impact from IUU fishing, the environmental consequences and threats to global fish populations and by association fishery management regimes need to be considered. So, this is a big problem.
Coming back to our friend the oil fish, while some crazy seafood fanatics might think that a 33% chance of having some serious leakage in the bathroom the next day is not such a high price to pay for a plate of delicious sushi, they might want to reconsider. Sorry for being so graphic here.
According to the same Oceana study the chance of being served escolar instead of proper white tuna is around 84%. Ouch!
And, these samples did not come from some shady grocery stores. Grocery stores actually ranked quite low on the fraud scale – at 18%. This compared to restaurants and sushi bars that had fraud rates of 38% and 75%, respectively. Makes one think.
White tuna is not an isolated case either. When it came to red snapper, only seven samples of the 120 actually contained red snapper. Incredible. Fish like halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass all ranked between 19% and 38% on the mislabelling scale.
When it comes to the salmon you had last night…well, we do not have any better news. A subsequent study by Oceana found out that almost three-quarters (69%) of the time that Atlantic salmon sold under “wild-caught”, it was actually the much cheaper farm-grown salmon version.
In addition to selling cheaper fish wrapped as something more expensive, some fisheries are even passing on endangered species as common consumer products.
For example, in 2009 a group of researchers discovered that a high-end restaurant in Santa Monica, California, served sushi made from the endangered Sei whale. This was smuggled in from Tokyo and invoiced as “fatty tuna”. Take this in for a moment, and think about it.
Some operations are also going as far as replacing “real seafood” with plants or even artificial seafood manufactured from chemicals.
There have been cases where jellyfish, which is a common element in the Asian cuisine, has been replaced with bamboo shoots or mustard greens – plants that can cause allergic reactions to some people. Chinese police have busted several jellyfish syndicates that manufactured fake jellyfish from chemicals extremely high in aluminium, which can do a great deal of harm to unsuspecting consumers.
Supply Chain & Sustainable Fishing
But it is not only within the supply chain where problems can arise. Fraudulent fisheries often abuse their employees, who are already severely underpaid and put into inhumane conditions for extremely long hours. In addition, it is also not uncommon to see the poaching and slaughtering of sharks, dolphins and whales.
So, what is being done to stop this? Well, there are organizations and companies that have stood up to the cause and set out to eliminate fraud and crime from the seafood industry. Creating transparency and trust around the whole field.
One company that set that goal for themselves was Sea To Table, one of the U.S.’s largest and most trusted sustainable seafood suppliers. Their plan was straightforward. They would buy fish from local fisherman and sell those fish directly to the end consumer. The upshot being no lengthy supply chain involved.
Over the years, Sea To Table was able to become the poster child of sustainable fishing, gathering a loyal customer base and being involved with almost every project regarding sustainable fishing.
Recently though, things have taken an unexpected and horrific turn, as Sea To Table was accused by the Associated Press (AP) for conducting the same fraud they initially set out to eliminate. Following a recent in-depth investigation conducted by AP, Sea to Table was accused of falsely advertising and mislabelling its fish (e.g. misusing terms like “local” and “wild caught”).
People started to get suspicious when Sea To Table sold Montauk tuna in the dead of winter, when the Montauk harbour was frozen solid, and no tuna boats went out to fish. From this point on new evidence kept showing up. DNA analysis indicated that the “local” Yellowfin tuna the company was selling likely came from the other side of the world.
There were also reports from fishermen working abroad who were forced to work on the fishing boats belonging to Sea To Table.
“We were treated like slaves”, said one of the fishermen. “They treated us like robots without any conscience.” And, these fishermen often worked unimaginably long hours, sometimes up to 22-hour shifts, without any food or water, while only being compensated as little as $1.50 per day.
It is difficult to see the role model of sustainable fishing falling on the same path as the fraudulent companies they wanted to eliminate. The unexpected news left many Sea To Table’s clients, some of who are established and well-known chefs, simply baffled. All this time, they believed they were supporting a loyal cause, only to find out that Sea To Table was no different.
Blockchain To The Rescue?
But is there still perhaps hope? Well, there remain companies who are supporting this cause and are working hard to figure out how to clean up the fraudulent seafood industry.
One of the most promising solutions for doing that come in the shape of blockchain technology. While many people understand blockchain only in the context of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, there are many other use cases for this technology – aka Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT).
Two things that make blockchain unique are its immutability and transparency. Everything that is stored on the blockchain is there permanently. No one can alter or delete the information that is stored and everyone in the network has the ability to see this data.
Every step in the supply chain is tracked with Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors, which are attached to the fish as soon as they are reeled in by the fisherman. Every factory, processing facility or logistics centre the fish passes through gets recorded on the blockchain.
Some companies are already using blockchain technology to track their supply chain – for example, with an initiative with Tuna on the Blockchain, with a provenance system so that you will know where you tuna comes from. Back in late 2016 it was reported that a British-based start-up called Provenance went out to Indonesia and tested tracking tuna on the blockchain.
More recently, IBM – aka ‘Big Blue’ – has been pioneering initiatives in the blockchain space with consortium initiatives around the global logistics supply chain. Employing around 2,000 people in the blockchain space, one of IBM’s recent projects saw the company form a joint venture this January with Danish business conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk.
Headquartered in the New York metro area, this new venture was seeking to provide more efficient and secure methods for global trade using blockchain technology. The aim was to develop a so-called “global trade digitization” platform built upon open standards and designed for use by the entire global shipping ecosystem.
This development followed a move last December by IBM to apply blockchain technology for food traceability to support offline and online consumers. Specifically, Big Blue, Walmart and Nasdaq-listed Chinese retailer JD.com joined forces with Tsinghua University National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce Technologies, announcing a Blockchain Food Safety Alliance collaboration to improve food tracking and safety in China. It represented an extension of efforts by Walmart and IBM in the U.S. back in August 2017.
Sensors & Fish
Some sensors will even monitor the products temperature, humidity and other factors. So, when a consumer purchases the fish off the self of a supermarket, or when a restaurant receives an order of fish, they can check the journey of that exact fish online using a tracking ID or a QR code.
They can see every factory the fish went through, when the fish was transported where, and even the name of the fisherman’s cat. OK, the last one might not be true, but you get the point – everything can be checked by the consumer. And, since the information is on the blockchain, no one can change it afterwards.
A sushi restaurant in San Diego called Harney Sushi is already printing edible QR codes on their rice paper wafers. These QR codes direct people to the FishWatch website of NOAA, where visitors can learn more about the sustainability and the origin of the fish they are eating.
Blockchain companies like VeChain and the HyperLedger project are developing new ways to improve every process in supply chain management with blockchain and different RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification), NFC (Near Field Contact) sensors, and QR codes. HyperLedger in particular has a sub-division called Sawtooth, which focuses on developing solutions for sustainable fishing.
Industry protagonists claim that the blockchain could definitely improve the seafood industry as well as every other industry. It is argued that it opens up many new opportunities and ways to improve our already existing processes – and remove mounds of paperwork. Certainly it holds a place in our technological future and as such understanding blockchain will be important.
There are many sources that provide educational information about blockchain technology, for example Crypto and Blockchain Talk podcast, which gives helpful insights to the world of cryptocurrencies, blockchain and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). And, Cryptofinance24 aims to keep posting helpful information about the vast cryptoworld and related ecosphere.
Although I have just attempted to show that the seafood industry is littered with fraud and it is quite likely that the fish you bought from the store or ordered from a restaurant is not the fish you thought you ordered, there are companies that are working on changing this problem.
These companies are developing potentially revolutionizing solutions that could bring transparency the whole industry, and many of them utilizing blockchain technology. When you will see a QR code on a can of tuna or on a rice wafer in the near future, know that it will likely tell you where the fish originated from and the places it went through before it comes within your reach.