Why tracing seafood from sea to plate is the next frontier in sustainability

A mahi mahi swims alone in deep blue water

Seafood is one of the most frequently traded commodities on earth. Millions of people depend on fish for their diets and fishing for their livelihoods, and the fishing industry plays a fundamental role in the effective management of our marine and coastal environments.

As such, it’s essential that fishing is well-regulated around the world. But regulations must be complied with to be effective, and unfortunately, too much of the fish that comes to market is caught illegally—that is, in violation of regulations meant to ensure that fish stocks remain healthy, marine and coastal environments are protected, and laborers are treated fairly.

“In a world in which demand for seafood protein has been rising and our oceans are sort of maxed out, we’re just at the start of reversing a decades-long crisis of overfishing,” says David Schorr, WWF’s senior manager for transparent seas. “We’re worried about making sure production of seafood gets on a sustainability pathway for environmental reasons, and increasingly for social reasons.”

Why traceability matters

The International Trade Commission reports that 11% of total US seafood imports in 2019 were derived from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. While 11% is hardly a majority, it amounts to $2.4 billion worth of illegal, unreported, and unregulated seafood in the US alone—a huge market that provides ample motivation for the continuation of illegal fishing. As long as there are markets where people can profit by selling illegally obtained fish, it will remain very difficult to put the global fish production system on a pathway to sustainability.

That’s why WWF works on increasing the traceability of seafood around the world. We promote to major seafood buyers the use of digital tools that enable businesses to trace seafood back to where, how, and when it was caught and engage fishing communities in traceability initiatives that will increase their visibility in the global marketplace.

In Peru, 50% of the mahi mahi caught is exported to the US. WWF has introduced technologies in half of those fisheries that allow fishers to gather digital data on their fish—a first step in creating a uniform traceability system for the entire supply chain. As these tools make supply chains more visible, Peruvian fishers are now empowered to seek higher prices for their products and prevent illegal products from entering the market.

How traceability works

“We have the technology to put digital solutions in place, not only to trace our fish but to make sure that we know what we want to know about how the fish was produced and the conditions for the people producing it.”

David Schorr
Senior Manager for Transparent Seas, Oceans, WWF

Traceability starts with attaching to each fish caught a set of information such as where and when the fish was caught, the name of the fishing boat, the license it carries, and the type of gear the fishers used.

Detailed data are essential because tracing seafood from sea to plate is not a simple proposition. Global supply chains in this massive industry are complex; some fish might pass through a dozen different companies and several countries before reaching a dinner plate. Ensuring that traded fish have a detailed and connected data trail to their origin is the best way to inform assessments of a fishery’s impact on the environment and its labor practices.

But there is no way to trace products through such complex journeys without a uniform standard for digital data collection and sharing. That’s why WWF spent years working with dozens of companies around the world to create the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability standards.

In order for these standards to become an established best practice in the industry, governments must demand fishery information as part of regulatory oversight. That’s why WWF worked over the last decade to help the US pass legislation that makes it illegal to import illegal, unreported, and unregulated fish and sets up a regulatory apparatus to monitor imports and gather data.

“We have the technology to put digital solutions in place, not only to trace our fish but to make sure that we know what we want to know about how the fish was produced and the conditions for the people producing it,” says Schorr. “The challenge now is to make this revolution in digital transparency happen, and that’s where WWF’s work is at the forefront.”