Nature and Biodiversity

Here's how transparent global fisheries can be a reality

Fish transport ships lie close to a tuna cage off the Calabrian coast in southern Italy.

Fish transport ships lie close to a tuna cage off the Calabrian coast in southern Italy. Image: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Tom Pickerell
Global Director, Ocean Program, Head of the Secretariat for the High-Level Panel, World Resources Institute
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• Illegal fishing is the third most lucrative natural resource crime.

• Supply-chain traceability is hard to achieve, due to inherent complexity.

• The Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration is a major step in preventing illegal tuna go to market.

You’ve probably eaten seafood that was harvested by criminals. Illegal fishing represents up to 26 million tonnes of fish caught annually, valued at between $10 billion and $36.4 billion annually, making it the third most lucrative natural resource crime, following timber and mining.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) occurs both on the high seas and in waters within national jurisdiction, and continues to pose one of the greatest threats to the world’s marine ecosystems. Simultaneously, it destabilizes both the food and job security of billions around the world. Illegal fishing undermines national and regional efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks, and greatly disadvantages and discriminates against those fishers that act responsibly. The activities of fishers and vessels that engage in illegal fishing can also constitute, lead to, or go hand-in-hand with other crimes. Examples of fisheries-related crimes range from document fraud and money laundering to people trafficking and human-rights abuses.

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Seafood supply chains are often complex and, historically, information within supply chains has been closely guarded. For companies that buy and sell seafood, the lack of product origin information and supply chain transparency can pose significant risks. In the past, the industry’s interest in traceability focus was primarily because of food safety concerns. But increasingly, seafood companies are publicly committing to fully traceable seafood. The challenge is now for those companies to be able to track the origin of their products to ensure that the seafood they sell meets their policies and also that such information is communicated to the customer accurately.

At the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017, 66 companies, including retailers and other tuna supply chain businesses, signed the World Economic Forum’s Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration with the aim of stopping illegal tuna getting to market, and promoting improvements in environmental sustainability and human rights in tuna fisheries. The declaration was also supported by six national governments and 21 civil society organizations.

As the name suggests, traceability – or tracking products from vessel to the final buyer – is a key component of the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration. The Commitments of the Declaration are based on the following four pillars:

• Tuna traceability commitment

• Commitment to a socially responsible tuna supply chain

• Commitment to environmentally responsible tuna sources

• Government partnership

The Global Tuna Alliance, an inclusive constituency of companies with a major interest in improving the sustainability of the tuna sector, is working with Friends of Ocean Action to actively support and implement the objectives laid out in the declaration. We believe that improving traceability and transparency will significantly improve existing sustainability initiatives. Effective traceability underpins sustainability efforts, as it creates transparency and accountability within the supply chain, enabling markets to directly support improved fisheries performance. Transparency means making information available to authorities and the public – including vessel fishing permissions, location of fishing activities, and catch and effort data. When done effectively, it allows improved management of fisheries and encourages improved fisheries performance. Greater transparency also increases the likelihood that human rights abuses will be identified and stopped.

New tuna traceability standards will allow consumers to track the origins of their food.
New tuna traceability standards will allow consumers to track the origins of their food. Image: FDA

The Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration asks signatories to commit to ensuring “that all tuna products in our supply chains will be fully traceable to the vessel and trip dates, and that this information will be disclosed upon request at the Point of Sale either on the packaging or via an online system”.

But in today’s world of complex and multilayered seafood supply chains, no single company can achieve full traceability of its products acting alone. In fact, what is urgently needed now is a set of globally agreed standards to ensure that fishers, processors, traders and retailers across geographies and market subsectors use traceability systems that can share essential data seamlessly.

Fortunately, such standards are about to be available. Over the last few years, an initiative called the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) has worked with supply chain members (including a number of GTA partners) to achieve global agreement on two vital questions:

• What are the standardized kinds of data (known as “key data elements”) needed to meet growing commercial and regulatory demands to demonstrate product legality, contribute to sustainability and avoid costly scandals?

• What are the IT formats and standardized data-sharing practices needed to allow proprietary traceability systems to communicate with each other rapidly, effectively and without forcing companies to invest in new IT every time they work with a new customer or supplier?

The new standards, known as “GDST 1.0”, will be formally released during the Seafood Expo North America in Boston, USA, next month. For the Global Tuna Alliance and its partners, this is good news indeed. In fact, based on the strong synergies between the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability’s approach and the commitments in the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration, the Global Tuna Alliance has determined that endorsement and implementation of the forthcoming standards are important steps for companies to meet their traceability commitment.


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There is no easy fix to make global fisheries transparent and traceable from bait to plate overnight. But with a concerted global effort behind these initiatives, we stand a good chance of making that happen – so that soon you can enjoy your salade niçoise or tuna steak confident that neither ocean ecosystems nor the people catching and processing your fish are suffering as a result.

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Nature and BiodiversityIndustries in DepthClimate Action
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