Universal Standards for Seafood Traceability

Pulling up fishing nets.

“When you can marry business interests with the public good, that is a powerful recipe for impactful change. WWF’s work to help create the GDST standards is an excellent example of how smart business and sustainability can go hand in hand.”

David Schorr
Senior Manager, WWF

The ocean provides a bounty of seafood, supporting hundreds of millions of jobs and feeding billions of people. But roughly a quarter of the fish caught globally is done illegally in the shadows, fueling a black market that exploits wildlife, people, and gaps in enforcement of laws. A lack of transparency allows rogue vessels and criminal networks to operate undetected and profit off stolen fish, taking money out of the pockets of people who follow the rules and contributing to declines in ocean health. Ending this black-market trade of seafood is good for nature and people but will require an array of proven tools working in tandem, chief among them is traceability.

The seafood sector has one of the most complex, trans-boundary supply chains in the world. Traceability is the concept of tracking product as it moves through a supply chain. Recording and sharing information about who caught what, when, where, and how, boosts confidence in the market and puts the squeeze on operations that look to cut corners and break rules. What’s been missing are universal traceability standards that establish a common baseline for what kinds of data need to be tracked and how that data should be shared across thousands of business platforms. In other modern industries, these kinds of standards for “interoperability” is how digital health records can be shared across hospitals, and how smartphones and debit cards work while traveling overseas.

WWF and IFT worked with leaders in the public and private sectors to develop voluntary standards that lay the foundation for seafood traceability worldwide.

The Project

With support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, WWF joined with the Global Food Traceability Center (an entity within the Institute of Food Technologists) to launch the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) in April 2017. At the time, two dozen companies came together to draft standards to enable interoperability and significantly increase verifiability for all seafood traceability systems. The GDST quickly grew to more than five dozen companies from around the world and across the entire seafood supply chain. The Dialogue also includes inputs from non-industry stakeholders gathered under the GDST Dialogue Advisory Group, who play an important role in reviewing and providing unique stakeholder perspectives to the GDST drafts.

The Dialogue was initially organized around an agenda stemming from a dozen preparatory workshops and in-person meetings in Asia, Europe, and North America. The technical drafting of the Dialogue was carried out through month-to-month work by GDST working groups and task groups using webinars, online surveys, and other collaboration tools.

In 2018, the Dialogue process expanded to include three hackathons and a series of pilot projects which engaged a combination of IT teams from GDST member companies, third-party solution providers, and external experts/stakeholders. These hackathons helped refine the emerging GDST standards through real-world problem-solving interactions with stakeholders who have expertise in seafood sustainability, supply chains, and information technology.

The Result

After three years of consensus-based dialogue, the GDST released its Standards and Guidelines for Interoperable Seafood Traceability Systems, v1.0 in March 2020.

GDST 1.0 is applicable across the seafood sector worldwide and with two main parts:

  1. standards identifying the minimum data elements that need to be documented and transmitted within GDST-compliant seafood supply chains
  2. standards governing the technical formats and nomenclatures for sharing data among interoperable traceability systems

These standards and guidelines are designed to meet operational business needs while helping ensure that products entering the seafood supply chain originate with legal production practices. They enable companies to have visibility into their supply chains while allowing them to maintain data access controls to protect business-sensitive information. They are also adapted to facilitate regulatory compliance with import controls such as the US Seafood Import Monitoring Program and the EU IUU Regulation.

The implementation of GDST standards will help companies meet their commitments to responsible sourcing while ensuring that future investments in their traceability systems are in step with industry trends and technology developments.

GDST 1.0 will also be a fundamental tool to increase transparency in global seafood supply chains by allowing the data systems needed for improved science-based management of fisheries and aquaculture farms to communicate seamlessly. With more transparent supply chains and better science-based management of fish stocks, stable populations can result for some of the most vulnerable species.

Next Steps

Companies around the world have signed on to adopt GDST 1.0 and many have begun taking the steps to implement these standards in their respective commercial environments. At the same time, service providers and seafood sustainability advisors have endorsed GDST 1.0 and are actively encouraging industry to adopt.

In February 2021, the GDST and four other leading seafood industry and multi-stakeholder platforms joined together to issue a joint statement to fight the IUU epidemic. Together, these five platforms represent over 150 companies, making this one of the largest seafood industry calls for action on record. Importantly, the five groups call for widespread adoption of the new GDST standards as a top priority for eliminating IUU products from seafood markets. The full press release is available here

GDST 1.0 represents a first iteration of technical standards that will need to evolve over time to meet the needs of the future.