A lot of my work in Honduras dealt with the issue of seafood traceability, so I thought I would share a bit about what traceability is and why it is important.Seafood traceability is essential the process of being able to 'trace' a seafood product throughout its supply chain from your dinner plate to the fishing boat and potentially the area of the ocean where it was caught.
Being able to trace seafood is important for a number of reasons, most notably consumer health and safety. Say, for example, you enjoy a delicious lobster dinner at your favourite restaurant - but later find yourself overwhelmed stomach pain that can only indicate some form of food poisoning. Now, if the companies that supplied your lobster dinner have a good traceability program in place, they will be able to track your lobster back through each step of its post-harvest travels and check its treatment at each step in the process to locate where the problem might have occured. With this system in place, it is possible to identify and find any other lobster that might be contaminated and keep someone else from suffering your same fate. The companies that supply the lobster are also better protected, since only the one that caused the problem will be penalised, instead of a blanket sanction across all companies or at the country level, like putitng an import embargo on all lobster from say, Honduras.
Seafood traceability is also increasing becoming important in combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, generally called IUU fishing. IUU fishing is one of the biggest problems facing global fisheries sustainability, with illegal catches estimated to be between 11 and 26 million tonnes - up to around 30 % of the world's current total catch of marine fish. To combat IUU fishing, some countries and regions, like the European Union, have strict traceability requirements for any seafood imports, which allows buyers to ensure that each fish was legally caught by a licenced fisher and boat using approved means.
Despite its importance, many countries still lack traceability requirements for seafood imports or have gaps in what they require. Having a national traceability system requires coordination among the people and companies throughout a fishery's supply chain, which can be complicated and costly to organise. A fishery supply chain refers to anyone involved in catching, processing and transporting that fishery's products. At a minimum, this includes the fishing crew, boat captains, fish packing houses, exporters, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Just from this condensed list, there is a high potential for coordination problems. Add to this, the fact that many of these people work in different areas or countries and that there are usually additional people, like middle-men or seafood brokers, involved in different stages of the supply process that make the whole system much more complicated. For a comprehensive traceability system, each of these groups of people need to provide the same information, in the same way, and in such a manner that it can be tracked and accessed if needed. Can you see why implementing traceability can be a headache?!
Because of these challenges, for many countries, improving seafood traceability comes as a result of market requirements. For example, the work I was involved in in Honduras for traceability was a direct result of increased traceability system requirements for seafood that is imported into the US. Since the US lobster industry relies on the US (over 90% of Honudran-caught lobster is sold to the US), meeting these requirements was a must for the industry's survival.
The market-based elements of traceability gives you, the consumer, power to help fight IUU fishing. One of the best and easiest ways you can help fight illegal fishing is simply to ask where seafood comes from and how it was caught - and then not buying it if the answer is unknown or questionable. Want to go a step further? Write or call your local political representative and let them know that seafood traceability is important to you. Seafood traceability and labelling laws vary widely across countries and even within different states, so I can't go into much detail here, but if you are interested in finding out more, there are a lot of resources available online. A great place to start is the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Sustainability website.
IUU estimates from Agnew DJ, Pearce J, Pramod G, Peatman T, Watson R, Beddington JR, et al. (2009) Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4570. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004570
After a couple weeks talking with fishers and fish houses in Roatán and Guanaja, I headed to the mainland to interview people from the larger fish houses ("packers"), fisher associations and NGOs working in the lobster industry. Unlike the Islands where a lot of the fishers use wooden traps to catch lobster, boats out of La Ceiba mostly rely on scuba divers to collect lobster from the fishing grounds. It is also home to many of the larger packers, who process the lobster and repackage it before exporting it to buyers in the United States.
While in La Ceiba, my field assistant, Sara, and I were also invited to a meeting led by the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (SENASA), the primary government department in charge of food safety and sanitation in Honduras. This meeting focused on improving traceability in the lobster supply chain, and attendees included fishers, boat captains, owners and managers of the fish packing houses, other government staff and NGO representatives. During the meeting, we discussed the importance of traceability and the proposed changes to the current system within the fishery. Up until now, system-wide traceability in the fishery was virtually non-existent. Each fish house maintained thier own records on which fishers the lobster was bought from and who it was sold to in the US, but a national, standardised transparent system was lacking - making it difficult to trace products with food safety or other issues. The new system being proposed and piloted by SENASA in the lobster industry changes this by first registering each fisher by their licence number, registering each fish house and building a system where at each exchange point, this information is added to the product allowing it to be tracked from the sea to someone's plate.
While initially met with some skepticism from the attendees, the presenter did a great job of communicating that traceability and this type of program is not asking for those involved to suddenly present more information - but instead to help them streamline their processes and provide better information, for example by standardising the way each fish house reports and tracks their products. Additionally, implementing traceability at this level ensures that they meet international trade requirements imposed by many of their main or potential markets, including the United States and the European Union.
The plan was to pilot this new traceability program during the 2017/18 lobster season and eventually roll it out to include other seafood and agriculture exports.