Human rights violations run rampant in the fishing industry. Here's how technology can help stop it.
Blockchain Technology Seafood
Credit: © Provenance

For years, news outlets have been reporting on the systemic use of slavery in commercial fishing in places such as New Zealand and Thailand. With much of the industry's byproduct ending up in the United States and Europe—according to a report in The Guardian, "The U.S., U.K., and E.U. are prime buyers of this seafood—with Americans buying half of all Thailand's seafood exports and the U.K. alone consuming nearly 7 percent of all Thailand's prawn exports."—there's a strong possibility that at some point, slave-caught fish has been served on a dinner plate near you. But thanks to blockchain, a technology best known as the basis for Bitcoin, soon there will be a new digital weapon to fight slave labor.

"We want to help support fish that is caught sustainably and verify these claims down the chain to help drive the market for slavery-free fish," Provenance founder Jessi Baker told the Guardian. Provenance is an organization dedicated to socially responsible consumerism—it recently began piloting a blockchain program with the Co-Op Food group in the United Kingdom. "This pilot shows that complex, global supply chains can be made transparent by using blockchain technology."

Currently, the only way to track the progress of seafood through the region's supply chain is with paper records and tagged animals. According to the Guardian, the world's biggest tuna exporter, the Thai Union, is all for utilizing blockchain technology. "Traceability—which allows us to prove that our fish is caught legally and sustainably and that safe labor conditions are met throughout the supply chain—is vital if we are to interest consumers in the source of their tuna," the union's director of sustainability Dr. Darian McBain told the paper.

The North American fishing industry has also grappled with the issue of traceability in recent years. "The United States is one of the largest seafood markets in the world, importing over five billion pounds of seafood per year, yet current laws do not ensure these imports come from legal sources," the World Wildlife Fund says. "Illegal fishing causes up to $23.5 billion in global losses each year, is a driver of overfishing, threatens marine ecosystems and food security and is linked to human rights violations. Illegal fishing is an epidemic and comprehensive solutions are needed to curb it so we can maintain the long-term viability of global fisheries."

In February, the Obama administration's Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) Fishing and Seafood Fraud proposed a rule requiring traceability for 13 types of seafood entering the United States. International ocean conservation advocacy organization Oceana wants this rule to apply to all seafood sold in the United States.

"Without tracking all seafood throughout the entire supply chain, consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking, honest fishermen will be undercut, and the long-term productivity of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy. It's clear that seafood fraud respects no borders," Oceana senior campaign director Beth Lowell said in a statement. "The path seafood travels from the fishing boat or farm to our dinner plates is long, complex and non-transparent, rife with opportunities for fraud and mislabeling. American consumers deserve to know more about their seafood, including what kind of fish it is, how and where it was caught or farmed, and they should be able to trust the information is accurate. The fight against seafood fraud must include all seafood and extend from boat to plate."