Traceability isn’t just about the source. It’s about transparency too.

Photo-HHHH---Fish-in-HandsIn our technology landscape, the phrase “track and trace” is often used to describe what traceability products do for complex supply chains. The two terms that make up this phrase are often used interchangeably. Tracking and tracing are not the same thing, however.

Tracing is something we aim to accomplish after a product gets to its final destination. A retail grocer, for example, might want to be able to “trace” a fresh salmon fillet from the consumer’s plate all the way BACK to the boat that puled it from the sea (“Boat to Plate” traceability). To “track” that salmon, on the other hand, is to follow it as its path through the supply chain emerges. For many businesses, knowing the exact, real-time disposition of a specific product provides valuable, actionable business intelligence. Anyone who’s ever used UPS’s online tracking tool to ease anxiety over the delivery of that last-minute birthday present understands the value of being able to follow an item as it moves through the supply chain.

Of the two terms, it is traceability that has become a topic of intense interest in the seafood world (as evidenced by the attention given to NOAA’s proposed traceability rule for the IUU Task Force). Solution providers are working to improve traceability by creating amazing tools at the ends of the seafood supply chain. Some providers seek to circumvent the middle of the supply chain by connecting consumers to the fishers who caught the salmon. Others are attempting to apply technological solutions to the thorny and seemingly impossible task of capturing vessel data (including satellite data) to account for every fish that gets taken from the sea. These two nodes are key components of traceability, and promise to give the most powerful actors in the industry (retailers, enforcement, and management agencies and consumers) the tools they need to help realize a future of sustainable fishers around the world.

However, it’s the “to” in “Boat to Plate” traceability that provides the biggest challenge to complete transparency. If we don’t pay as much attention to how we can track seafood as we do to a consumer’s opportunity to trace it, we will find our efforts compromised. Traceability is not just about the source. It’s about transparency too.

Thankfully, as the certifications and schemes for responsibly harvested seafood mature, these complexities are being taken into account. Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme is still vessel-focused, but sets requirements beyond the fishing activity to include proper handling and storage of the fish, and close attention to crew welfare. MSC’s Chain-of-Custody certification makes clear that the way seafood is processed, including the nature and source of additives and non-seafood ingredients, is a key component of the audit process. The PNA fishing agreement stipulates that all trans-shipment must happen in port, and sets clear guidelines for mixing catches.

The Clue approach to traceability data (what, where, how and by whom) is an important start to achieving transparency. But dealing with the murky middle—trans-shipment, at-sea processing, co-mingling and unknown storage conditions—is necessary to leverage the main market-driven incentives to end IUU fishing: authenticity and quality.

John McPherson

About John McPherson
John McPherson serves as Director of Sustainability for Frequentz. An expert on the nexus of technology, sustainability and entrepreneurship, McPherson has led teams in a diverse array of interdisciplinary projects, ranging from ocean advocacy and education to green-job training and mobile technology development. He is currently a co-founding Board Member of the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative, a non-profit research and advocacy organization dedicated to finding solutions to sustainability issues in Southern California.

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