Can tracing a tuna in the West improve fisheries in the developing world?

Can tracing a tuna in the West improve fisheries in the developing world?

Apr 23, 2014
Can tracing a tuna in the West improve fisheries in the developing world?

That question is at the heart of an exciting research project that ThisFish is participating in with a consortium of academic researchers, seafood companies, government officials and nonprofits in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Called “Improving Fisheries Information and Traceability for Tuna” or IFITT, the project is being spearheaded by Wageningen University in the Netherlands in collaboration with Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia and Yayasan Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI), an NGO focused on supporting fishing communities.

CAPTION: Members of the IFITT tuna project meet with Indonesian government officials in Bali in January 2014.

In January, a dozen researchers and participants gathered in Bali, Indonesia to kick-off the three-year endeavour. At its heart, the “action-research” project will focus on implementing ThisFish’s traceability system in both small-scale artisanal and industrial-scale tuna fisheries in Indonesia. The idea is to see if an “information-rich” consumer traceability system like ThisFish can improve the management of “information-poor” fisheries in the developing world through market incentives.

“We are excited about the potential of this project to improve fisheries data collection and add value to our tuna exports,” says Momo Kohen, MDPI director of science and programs based in Bali. “Ultimately, we want to make our artisanal fisheries more sustainable and our fishermen more prosperous.”

Tuna fisheries in Southeast Asia are notorious for having poor data collection and convoluted supply chains, making it difficult to trace product back to its place of origin. A recent study in the journal Marine Policy estimates that 20 to 35 percent of tuna imported into the United States from Indonesia is either illegal or unreported.

That stark reality is in sharp contrast to growing demand by consumers to know where their food comes from, especially for health and food safety reasons. There appears to be a yawning gap between what consumers want and what the market is currently delivering.

The IFITT project plans to fill this gap by piloting ThisFish’s traceability system at several fishing ports in Indonesia that supply yellowfin and skipjack tuna to global markets. The project team is working with several domestic and international companies that plan to offer traceable yellowfin loins and canned skipjack. MDPI, the Indonesian nonprofit, has hired fish enumerators in ports to document local catches to ensure independent validation of the traceable tuna.

CAPTION: Fishing vessels moored in Bitung, a fishing port on the northern coast of the island of Sulawesi.

“As researchers, we are interested to document the cost of implementing seafood traceability in the developing world and to gauge the value that Western consumers place on knowing exactly where their tuna came from,” said Dr. Simon Bush, a Wageningen researcher. “The most exciting question is whether Western consumers would be willing to pay a slightly higher price for their tuna which would then help to fund data collection for traceability and fisheries management. We want to see if market incentives can improve fisheries monitoring in the developing world.”

Traceability could also support supply chain compliance for certifications such as the Marine Stewardship Council that require good data collection in place to monitor whether fish is caught sustainably. Likewise, Fair Trade USA is currently developing a standard for fisheries that is being piloted in one of the fishing ports in the IFITT project in Indonesia. The Indonesian government has also proposed its yellowfin and bigeye tuna fisheries for MSC certification

Project participants, among other experts, will be taking part in a panel discussion titled "Extending the Business Case for Traceability from the Global North to the Global South" at the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade 2014 conference in Brisbane, Australia, during the week of July 7 to 11. 

For more information, visit IFITT’s project homepage.