4 interesting topics in marine sustainability right now.

1. Blockchain and the seafood supply chain

Image credit: FAO UN

‘Blockchain’ - isn’t that the thing that bitcoin is built on? Yes. So how are blockchain technologies being trialed in the seafood traceability arena?

The thought is that the chain of custody will be independently verified from source to plate, so the origin of the tracked fish species can be verified. It’s well known that there are issues within the seafood industry that need to be overcome such as species mislabelling and fishing in sensitive areas such as marine parks. The integration of independently verifiable technology can in theory overcome these issues. But will the industry buy into it?

For a very full read on the topic see ‘Blockchain application in seafood value chains’ published by the Food and Agriculture organisations of the United Nations.

Sure, blockchain technology isn’t the only thing that is going to fix all unsustainable fishing practices, but its verifiable data could help. If there is industry opt-in, malpractices could be reduced. If credible I believe customers would likely trend toward fish with accountable chains of custody. But what would integrating such a system cost? And would that cost be passed onto the customer? Would they still want to pay for that tuna if it cost 25% more than non-verified tuna? We’re seeing a similar process happen when a fish stock achieves a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation, the price increases. Thus far we’ve seen customers willing to pay higher prices for MSC certified fish. This price increase starts with the original producer and moves through to the importer, retailer, and customer.

So is all of this a thought experiment or is there some hope for practical application? See this Guardian article that references a range of pilot projects around the world from Yellowfin tuna to Patagonian Toothfish. But at this stage, 'pilot' is the key word. No blockchain projects seem to be mainstream. From our perspective companies building a high-end brand around their fish like Glacier 51 for Patagonian toothfish have a chance as the traceability story will be part of the brand identity and the cost can be passed on. Perhaps supermarkets would have the resources to undertake such a task if enough customer demand for such traceability grew. But, I simply can’t conceive that the middle market of wholesalers and foodservice providers would engage with this technology in the near future.

2. Bluefin tuna are now classed as 'least concern' - IUCN

Image credit: Getty Images

Bluefin tuna is an apex predator, a king of the sea. They have had poor sustainability credentials for many years and have not been on the menu in the UK since I can recall.

I was recently surprised to see that the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) published an article saying that The Atlantic bluefin tuna had moved from ‘endangered’ to ‘least concern.

A small artisanal Mediterranean fishery in the South of France has also been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 2020. Read more about this certification here. This is one of two bluefin fisheries to receive the status in 2020.

It comes at an interesting time as over the past few years I’ve heard sightings of huge bait balls being chased by bluefin tuna feeding off the South Coast of England. Only last week a supplier in Portland said that some of his colleagues saw them swimming right into shore. Whilst sightings are becoming more frequent, it is still illegal for commercial fishing to target them in British waters and they must be released alive if possible.

If stock management remains steady, we could see small amounts of sustainable bluefin tuna back on the menu here in the UK in the coming years.

3. Are salmon going to become vegetarian?

Image credit: Feed Navigator

One of the criticisms of mass-market fish farming is the reliance on unsustainable wild fishmeal. Take salmon, for example, much of their feed is produced from wild fish by-catch or low-value wild fish. So the question is, how sustainable can the farmed fish be if they are eating non-sustainably caught wild fish?

There is research being done to assess whether farmed predatory fish such as trout and salmon can be fed on plant-based diets. One article claims It has been found that up to 50% of a carnivorous farmed fish’s diet can be changed before having negative effects on the fish.

For further reading on this topic see:

The current state of plant-based proteins in aquaculture feed

Replacing fishmeal with plant protein in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) diets by supplementation with fish protein hydrolysate

First humans, now fish are becoming vegetarian. I wonder whether the new global demand might add additional pressure to existing supply chains to service the plant-based trend.

4. Publically available resources to assess the sustainability of fish species based on data

Image credit: The Good Food Institute

This year we have been reviewing our seafood supply chains. We have been looking at the catch or farming methods and the fishery or country of origin. Our ultimate goal is to drop anything that is a poor sustainable choice and to apply an internal fish society rating system that reflects our assessment of the species we sell.

Along this journey, we have used a few tools to help form our opinions. These are available to the public and we would recommend browsing them to learn more from independent sustainability assessments of different species from different fisheries.

We've found that it's best to review a species and a fishery across multiple sources of data. What we have also found is that not all species and fisheries appear on all of these lists. There are some commonalities that are usually those with the largest commercial value with some small marginal species not making the lists. It's not to say they are not being fished in a responsible way, there may just not be enough momentum behind a certain catch to undertake these lengthy review processes. This presents us with difficulty to grade species such as John Dory from the South West of England. There is no assessment data on the species as it is not 'commercially targetted', it is regarded as high-value bycatch. Without stock assessment data how can you assess if it is a healthy stock or not? 

The Good Fish Guide - Marine Conservation Society

Seafish - Risk Assessment for sourcing seafood (RASS)

Marine Stewardship Council - Track a Fishery

Fishery Progress - Fishery Improvement Project Progress Tracking Database

#Thefishsociety