Transparency for Just Seafood Systems

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This Nova Scotian lobster is fully consumer-facing traceable.

In Brief

Supply chain transparency and traceability have been forwarded as solutions to overfishing of the global oceans. Marine conservation funders, NGOs, and research partnerships are all jumping on board asking what traceability can do for environmental sustainability. Recent investigations into slavery at fisheries in Southeast Asia, whose products ended up on the shelves of American supermarkets, have also brought to light issues with forced labor in global fisheries. In what ways should we expect supply chain transparency and traceability to serve as possible solutions to also address social sustainability such as forced labor in fisheries production? Where transparency extends all the way to consumers, production improvements may be found. Similar movements in the garment industry are reviewed here to provide potential ways forward for seafood traceability. A future where all seafood is traceable and fisheries production practices are transparent could force a “race to the top,” where companies are forced to improve their practices for fear of reputational damage.

Key Concepts

  • There is a well-established environmental crisis in global fisheries. Lesser known, however, is that social sustainability is equally problematic.

  • Evidence from the garment industry suggests that when transparency becomes the norm, companies have to incentivize the possible external risk that bad social and environmental behaviors may bring them.

  • Should a similar incentive exist for seafood, supply chain traceability and transparency, when extending to the consumer, may help to reward companies who currently support just seafood systems, and may incentivize companies with subpar practices to improve.

An overfishing and overconsumption crisis has resulted in global declines of marine fish stocks. So while global population is increasing, the ability of our oceans to support that population through wild capture fisheries is becoming questionable. Despite major efforts by governments and marine conservation organizations to control fisheries production and seafood consumption, fraud, mislabeling, and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing  (IUU) continue to stall success.1–3 Additionally, in 2015 the Associated Press, with help from foreign media advocacy groups, broke the story of Burmese, Thai, Khmer, and Lao fish harvesters imprisoned on a remote Indonesian island. Thai fishing trawlers essentially owned these men: slaves to the global seafood industry. This and other recent investigations into labor abuses and slavery in seafood supply chains have added a further layer of complexity to the sustainability seascape.4,5 While debate continues to unfold within the scientific community as to the magnitude of the overfishing and overconsumption crisis,6 what is not up for question is the fact that we can and must do better. Sustainable seafood and aquaculture systems will be a necessary condition should the seas continue to be relied upon to contribute to global food security.


One newly voiced solution to the problem of how to regulate fishing is supply chain traceability, that is, the ability to trace fish and seafood from ‘boat to throat.’ Traceability has been common practice in food supply chains for decades to ensure food safety (the 2016 Listeria outbreak in the U.S. and Canada is an example of why traceability is so important). But increasing globalization and technological breakthroughs have paved the way for innovations in the way that seafood supply chains are managed, and so-called full-chain traceability is emerging as the gold standard. When we talk about traceability, what we really mean is the structured flow of information through a supply chain that allows that information to be recalled at distant places and at future times.

Megan Bailey
The origin of seafood displayed in a retailer may be noted, but what systems are in place to validate that information?


In basic traceability, supply chain actors need only communicate with actors one node up and one node down in the supply chain. This limits the amount of coordination and transparency in the supply chain. In full-chain traceability, the consumer should be able to trace a code or scan a label to bring up information about the supply chain, the fish species they are eating, the source of the product, etc. Where this information is available, to date it has centered on ecological sustainability claims. What has been given less attention is an explicit attempt to figure out if and how traceability can address other aspects of sustainability such as theft, slavery, and violence at sea. This is not just important for food as there is a similar emphasis on social traceability in other industries such as garments and electronics,7 with scholars and practitioners alike expressing belief that greater traceability will help solve sustainability challenges in global supply chains. This may be especially true when traceability information is directly available to consumers, in what is called consumer-facing traceability. Here, we explore what we can learn from this type of traceability attempt in other sectors to promote social sustainability for seafood.


As a catchall term, traceability has been forwarded as a major conservation breakthrough as it can be a tool to promote, operationalize, and verify transparency.8 Its ubiquity in the sustainable seafood vocabulary is likely a product of several things, including its inclusion as necessary for certification standards (like the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade USA), reports on seafood fraud, like that published by Oceana in 2013,9 and a general movement for greater environmental disclosure.10 But the word itself remains obscure, and its uses and benefits not well understood. There are numerous barriers, including concerns over how information and the costs of setting up systems should be shared, how “interoperable” systems are, that is to say, how easily different traceability systems can talk to one another, and, arising from the global nature of seafood supply chains, concerns over the capability of different countries to implement equally robust systems.8,10,11 Additionally, how traceability may be operationalized in various contexts, for example, in small scale fisheries where middlemen often control access to the assets and capabilities of fish harvesters,12 is yet to be adequately questioned. Despite this, major marine conservation funders (Packard, Pew, Walton, Moore, etc.) are pairing up with traceability service providers to start breaking down these barriers. One key example is the Future of Fish-led traceability pod, which has gathered key providers together, such as ThisFish, Trace Register, Insight Solutions, andPoint97, among others, to address the concerns of interoperability and cost sharing. The pod works to break down these barriers through a co-design process, where providers agree to work together, at the same time respecting the proprietary nature of one another’s businesses.

Megan Bailey
ThisFish, launched by Ecotrust Canada, isis leading the way in full-chain seafood traceability and works to connect consumers and fish harvesters from around the world.

Efforts like these are likely, at least in part, due to a push for traceability requirements by the U.S. government through the U.S. Presidential Task Force, which was established in 2015 in order to combat IUU.  The EU has launched a similar initiative this year, expanding from their original 2008 initiative,14,15 and a supply chain transparency provision (and subsequent guidance in the UK) has been outlined to address issues raised in the Modern Slavery Act (2015).16 Additionally, academic research agendas targeting seafood traceability are arising to help investigate the conditions under which traceability can promote sustainable seafood systems. One example is “Improving Fisheries Information and Traceability for Tuna” (, a partnership between Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Bogor Agricultural Institute in Indonesia, ThisFish traceability provider in Canada, and Masyarakat dan Perikanan, Indonesia, an Indonesian NGO working at providing sustainable supply chain support for Indonesia’s fishing sector. The partnership studies the implementation of traceability in Indonesia’s tuna supply chains, where processed product ends up with traceable codes on fish in the U.S. Part of the impetus of the research is the recognition that traceability norms appear to be forwarded by importing countries (for example the U.S.), before adequate engagement with exporting countries (often in developing countries) can be had.8


Because seafood traceability enables the flow of information along each step of the food supply chain, much of the conversation to date has focused on how greater internal transparency improves business efficiency, through better logistics and quicker recalls.17 Similarly, there is evidence that it can help retailers reduce their reputational risk through external transparency, communicating their seafood sourcing to civil society.17,18 Additionally, supply chain actors can share information externally with governments as a way to prove legality to importing countries (Figure 1).19 But continuing to view these functions as isolated misses an opportunity. Promoting full-chain traceability where information is seamlessly transmitted internally and externally simultaneously may offer fish harvesting, processing, and trading businesses efficiencies, help governments increase the legality of their fisheries, and help retailers and civil society to have open discussions about what matters when sourcing sustainable seafood. Going a step further, when traceability is consumer-facing, seafood consumers are able to join that conversation and assert their desires for justly sourced seafood.

Adapted from Bailey et al (2016) / Icons courtesy of thenounproject
Figure 1. Internal and external information flows for seafood traceability.


Although the sustainable seafood movement emerged over 20 years ago, it’s only been in the last two years that NGOs, researchers, and regulators have put a large effort into discussing the problems of slavery at sea and labor abuses in seafood supply chains.4 This is despite several interest groups such as Human Rights as Sea, Slave Free Seas, Human Rights Watch, Environmental Justice Foundation, and the International Collective in Support of Fish Workers, among others, being active in this area. Solutions to this problem have hardly even been forwarded, as stakeholders are only now beginning to grapple with the enormity of the problem. The recent exposés on trafficking and seafood slavery have primarily highlighted problems in the Thai seafood industry, but it’s important to note that unsafe and inhumane working conditions unfortunately are a characteristic of fishing fleets worldwide.4,20,21 Additionally, the globalized nature of seafood supply chains means that much of the unjust seafood caught and processed ends up on the plates of consumers all over the world, and thus consumption must be linked with production through traceability or an equal transparency medium. Consumers should be held accountable for the consumption decisions they make, but that accountability remains difficult when supply chains remain opaque.


While scholars have shown that full transparency can serve as a useful corporate tool to enhance legitimacy and increase sales, its ability to promote social justice in global supply chains is less studied. The underlying assumption is that greater openness will empower information users such as consumers and civil society organizations to exert influence on the disclosing company, that is, it is a tool for holding powerful corporate actors accountable for labor conditions in global supply chains.22 Such augmented influence is, in turn, envisioned to translate into more sincere and effective private regulatory systems, such as codes of conduct and auditing, that then will improve labor conditions.23 Given the well-documented inability of existing private regulatory systems to improve worker rights,24 such positive effects would surely be welcomed. Additionally, recent work investigating the effectiveness of tackling forced labor in Thai fisheries suggests that formal certification has extremely limited potential at promoting just seafood systems, but that internal supply-chain relationships and pressures, along with a desire to reduce reputational risk, may drive change5.


The validity of this line of reasoning hinges on the empirical question of whether or not consumers, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders actually leverage the disclosed information to exert influence. Egels-Zandén and Hansson recently showed that this was not the case for consumers in the garment industry. Although limited to a single-case study in a predominantly Swedish setting, this raises a warning flag in relation to the transformative ability of greater transparency. Still, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of civil society organizations leveraging disclosed information about, for example, factory names, locations, and labor conditions to make their campaigns more effective, indicating that they, rather than consumers directly, are the likely vehicle for change.

Megan Bailey
Members of the IFITT project gather with children of Assilulu, one of the landing areas of the first Fair Trade USA certified fishery. Fair Trade USA requires traceability.

Furthermore, studies of a Swedish garment retailer’s attempts indicate that the most important mechanism might be found inside, rather than outside, the firm.7 Once top management, purchasers, and sustainability managers realize that sourcing decisions and indiscretions will be publicly disclosed for stakeholders to dissect, they internalize the potential external critique and start questioning their own decisions. This internalized control places restrictions on new supplier selection (“we can only use new suppliers where we have documented proof of just labor conditions that we can publish”), willingness to undertake corrective actions (“we have to fix this immediately to avoid scandals”), purchasing practices (“we cannot demand quicker deliveries as this would lead to overtime violations that we then have to disclose”), and so on. In sum, greater transparency to consumers is likely to positively impact businesses, private regulatory attempts, and, consequently, labor conditions. However, and in contrast to previous studies, we argue that this is as much driven by internal as external mechanisms. What is promising for the seafood sector is that recent evidence suggests that consumers do display a willingness to pay for socially sustainable seafood; however, this willingness is in fact less than that for ecologically sustainable seafood.25 Interestingly, the results of this survey showed substantial overlap between social sustainability and local food systems,25 which is problematic for a globalized supply chain like that seen in seafood.


Just because something is traceable, where information is communicated, does not in and of itself make that something sustainable. For all intents and purposes, one could offer traceability on fish coming from forced labor. There is a worry, then, that traceable products may dilute the transformative power of eco-labels, if they indeed have such power.26,27 But there is an implicit assumption that companies that are transparent and that risk exposing themselves may have less to hide than other companies,22 so that a company transparently communicating about ecological sustainability may be thought to also meet labor standards, for example. While many developing countries have difficulty obtaining ecological sustainability certifications, they may be more easily able to promote social sustainability vis-à-vis Fair Trade USA, for example.12 This means a consumer’s preference to prioritize one aspect of a company’s performance, such as transparency around labor issues, may mean said consumer accepts seafood without an ecological label. At the same time, we envision consumer-facing traceability and transparency as a ‘race to the top’—where the more transparent a company is, the more quickly they will continually try to improve their practices in other areas.


Studies in other industries, such as garment and food more broadly, have shown that full transparency is positively related to consumers’ willingness to buy. The first businesses to adopt full transparency measures are going to reap the benefits of that transparency, whether or not the impending regulations require consumer-facing and/or social requirements. But there are very real challenges with implementing full chain traceability.11 It is not enough for regulators to impose traceability programs onto supply chain actors, as this disproportionate burden on the global South will incentivize only wealthier actors to benefit from the first-mover advantage that increased transparency may bring.8 Rather, transformation of seafood supply chains towards more just systems will require cooperation and coordination throughout, and an enabling technology and regulatory ecosystem must be prioritized. Work on seafood supply chain risk assessment frameworks, like the one currently being developed by Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Seafish UK, may help to pave the way in identifying those supply chains that, with implementation of consumer-facing traceability, could result in the largest ecological, economic, and social sustainability gains. Working with these ‘low-hanging fruit’ may help to create some lessons learned and examples of successful implementation. Also positive is the fact that initiatives in the global South, for example, the Improving Fisheries Information and Traceability for Tuna project in Indonesia referred to earlier, are working to link consumers and fishers in new ways, suggesting that what traceability offers is of interest to different members of society in different parts of the world.

Megan Bailey
: In Canada, some of Nova Scotia’s lobsters are fully traceable. Fish harvesters can see where in the world their lobsters are being eaten (or played with!).


Effective food traceability has been defined as “an outcome of businesses possessing a disciplined, professionally managed approach to data gathering, retention, analysis and collaboration, performed simultaneously at all points along the supply chain.”17 One does not automatically associate such a definition with sustainable food systems. We would argue that, in fact, effective seafood traceability is an outcome where verified transparency and interoperability rewards companies for communicating their fishing and purchasing practices. Imagine a future where all fish and seafood was fully consumer-traceable. Transparency would force those companies currently operating with substandard labor conditions, including forced labor, child labor, and slavery, to change their practices or risk being exposed. Important to note is that social issues extend beyond slavery, and thus social sustainability considerations in fisheries should begin to account for issues such as living wages, freedom of association, health, and safety. Interoperable full-chain traceability would enable supply chain actors to improve their efficiency while potentially decreasing their demand for raw materials. All of these benefits would be in addition to the advantages that regulators and retailers could experience through verification that only legal, regulated, and reported fish and seafood products are ending up on store shelves. As the sustainable seafood movement starts to prioritize a social agenda, we see consumer-facing traceability as a socio-technological solution to promote just seafood systems.



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