Are you sure that the expensive “Wild-caught Atlantic Salmon” you had for dinner last night was in fact the gourmet fish you thought it was? Or was it just a cheaper farm-grown salmon? Or was it salmon at all?
How the Blockchain is Reducing Seafood Fraud
Moreover, are you sure the tasty white tuna sushi your local sushi bar serves is actually made from tuna and not from escolar, also known as oilfish? What’s the big deal, you might ask. Well, escolar is quite notorious for its delicious, cheap and oily meat. Meat that causes intense stomach problems, in other words, nasty uncontrollable diarrhea.
How likely is it for a sushi restaurant to serve its hungry customers fish with such severe side effects? Or how common is fraud in general in the seafood industry?
From 2010 to 2012 Oceana, one of the largest organizations focusing on studying oceans, conducted a study exploring fraud in the seafood industry. According to the research, as much as one-third of seafood products in the United States were mislabelled. One in every three seafood products people buy don’t actually contain what the label says. This is the industry average, but there are many species of fish that have a much higher percentage of fraud.
Coming back to our friend the oilfish, while some crazy seafood fanatics might think that a 33% chance of having some serious leakage in the bathroom the next day is not such a high price to pay for a plate of delicious sushi, they might want to reconsider. According to the same study done by Oceana the chance of being served escolar instead of proper white tuna is around 84%.
And these samples didn’t come from some shady grocery stores. Grocery stores actually ranked quite low on the fraud scale – at 18%, whereas restaurants and sushi bars had fraud rates of 38% and 75%, respectively.
White tuna is not an isolated case. When it came to red snapper, only 7 samples of the 120 actually contained red snapper. Fishes like halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass all ranked between 19-38% on the mislabelling scale. When it comes to the salmon you had last night… well, we don’t have any better news. A later study by Oceana found out that 69% of the times Atlantic salmon sold under “wild-caught” was actually the much cheaper farm-grown salmon.
In addition to selling cheaper fish as something more expensive, some fisheries are passing on endangered species as common consumer products. For example, in 2009 a group of researchers found that a high-end restaurant in Santa-Monica served sushi made from the endangered Sei whale – it was smuggled in from Tokyo and invoiced as “fatty tuna”. Take this in for a moment, and think about it.
Some operations are going as far as replacing real seafood with plants or even artificial seafood manufactured from chemicals. There have been cases where jellyfish (a common element in the Asian cuisine) has been replaced with bamboo shoots or mustard greens – plants that can cause allergic reactions to some people. Chinese police have busted several jellyfish syndicates that manufactured fake jellyfish from chemicals extremely high in aluminum, which can do a lot of harm to unsuspecting consumers.
It’s not only within the supply chain where problems can arise. Fraudulent fisheries often abuse their employees who are already severely underpaid and put into inhumane conditions for extremely long hours. In addition, it is also not uncommon to see the poaching and slaughtering of sharks, dolphins, and whales.
What is being done to stop this?
There are organizations and companies that have stood up to the cause and set out to eliminate fraud and crime from the seafood industry. Creating transparency and trust around the whole field.
One company that set that goal for themselves was Sea To Table. Their plan was straightforward – they would buy seafood directly from the fishermen and sell it straight to the end consumer. No lengthy supply chain involved. Over the years, Sea To Table was able to become the poster child of sustainable fishing, gathering a loyal customer base and being involved with almost every project regarding sustainable fishing.
Recently, things have taken an unexpected and horrific turn, as Sea To Table was accused by the Associated Press for conducting the same fraud they initially set out to eliminate.
People started to get suspicious when Sea To Table sold Montauk tuna in the dead of winter, when the Montauk harbour was frozen solid, and no tuna boats went out to fish. From this point forward new evidence kept showing up. DNA analysis indicated that the ‘local’ Yellowfin tuna the company was selling likely came from the other side of the world.
There were also reports from fishermen working abroad who were forced to work on the fishing boats belonging to Sea To Table. “We were treated like slaves”, said one of the fishermen, “They treated us like robots without any conscience.” These fishermen often worked unimaginably long hours, sometimes up to 22-hour shifts, without any food or water, while only being compensated as little as $1.50 per day.
It is difficult to see the role model of sustainable fishing falling on the same path as the fraudulent companies they wanted to eliminate. The unexpected news left many Sea To Table’s clients, some of who are established and well-known chefs, baffled. All this time, they believed they were supporting a loyal cause, only to find out that Sea To Table was no different.
But there is still hope. There are still companies who are supporting this cause and are working hard to figure out how to clean up the fraudulent seafood industry.
One of the most promising solutions for doing that is blockchain technology. While many people understand blockchain only in the context of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, there are many other use cases for this technology.
Two things that make blockchain unique are its immutability and transparency. Everything that is stored on the blockchain is there permanently – no one can alter or delete the information that is stored – and everyone in the network has the ability to see this data.
Some companies are already using blockchain technology to track their supply chain – for example ‘Tuna on the Blockchain’.
Every step in the supply chain is tracked with IoT sensors, which are attached to the fish as soon as it is reeled in by the fisherman. Every factory, processing facility or logistics centre the fish passes through gets recorded on the blockchain. Some sensors will even monitor the products temperature, humidity, and other factors. When a consumer purchases the fish off the self of a supermarket, or when a restaurant receives an order of fish, they can check the journey of that exact fish online using a tracking ID or a QR code. They can see every factory the fish went through, when the fish was transported where, and even the name of the fisherman’s cat. – okay, the last one might not be true, but you get the point – everything can be checked by the consumer. And since the information is on the blockchain, no one can change it afterwards.
A sushi restaurant in San Diego called Harney Sushi is already printing edible QR codes on their rice paper wafers. These QR codes direct people to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) FishWatch website, where visitors can learn more about the sustainability and the origin of the fish they are eating.
Blockchain companies like VeChain and HyperLedger are developing new ways to improve every process in supply chain management with blockchain and different RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification), NFC (Near Field Contact) sensors, and QR codes. HyperLedger, in particular, has a subdivision called Sawtooth that focuses on developing solutions for sustainable fishing.
Blockchain could definitely improve the seafood industry as well as every other industry. It opens up many new opportunities and ways to improve our already existing processes. It definitely holds a place in our technological future and understanding blockchain will be important. There are many sources that provide educational information about blockchain technology, for example, Crypto and Blockchain Talk podcast, which gives helpful insight to the world of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and ICOs, and also we at Cryptofinance24 will keep posting useful information about the vast cryptoworld.
Although we have just shown that the seafood industry is littered with fraud and it is quite likely that the fish you bought from the store or ordered from a restaurant is not the fish you thought you ordered, there are companies that are working on changing this problem. These companies are developing potentially revolutionizing solutions that could bring transparency to the whole industry, and many of them utilizing blockchain technology. When you’ll see a QR code on a can of tuna or on a rice wafer in the near future, know that it will likely tell you where the fish is from and what places it went through before reaching you.
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