Earth First

Where is Your Fish From?

Traceability is a recurring term when it comes to fish safety and fishery sustainability. But what does that even mean?

Traceability is the overarching term, which describes the ability to trace the history of a (food) product through its production and full life cycle. This system of traceability is basically a record of where the product has been, who was in contact with it and the stages of processing. It records the whole supply chain. One example for an evolving traceability system is the fish market.

What information is tracked

Currently, there are multiple guidelines and principles for traceability when it comes to fish. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has a list of points based on extensive case studies, by which fisheries should comply to. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), together with industry partners, offers propositions for the traceability of wild-caught fish.

The WWF set up six principles that should be the foundation for a framework of traceability. They are a little theoretical, but they can be a guideline for many companies and fisheries. These six principles are: 1

  1. The Essential Information. All information regarding a caught fish (measurements and all ‘W- questions’ like who? what? when? how? etc.) to ensure it’s a legal catch.
  2. Full Chain Traceability. To track the whole chain from sea to table in detail.
  3. Effective Tracking of Product Transformation. Where and how the product was transformed (if transformed) to verify the legality and sustainability.
  4. Digital Information and Standardized Data Formats. Electronic data, proper labelling and tracking through standardised data formats.
  5. Verification. The information must be provided so government or external parties can verify and assess the fish.
  6. Transparency and Public Access to Information. The system must be transparent so everyone, from Grandma to Queen Elizabeth, can make conscious decisions based on the supply chain information.

Is Fish Traceability really that simple?

In theory, tracking a fish sounds easy, but in practice, it gets a little more complicated. It involves a lot of stickers and keeping track of these stickers with the right fish and verification.

When the fish is pulled out of the ocean, it is labelled with a sticker that describes its species and weight, who pulled it out, date, grade and price. This coded sticker will stay with the fish during the transformation process. Once the fish (whole or in pieces) is ready to be vacuum-packed, it gets a new sticker.2 Some fish auctions even have tracking barcodes for the boxes that hold fish.

These stickers have numbers or barcodes that can be read to gain traceability information about the fish. This information is also logged into an electronic system, so it can be accessed easily. To be clear, these stickers are not called stickers but IDs. Fresh fish are given a Raw Material Identification (RM-ID). When the fish is transformed into a product and shipped to restaurants or markets, it will be labelled with a Finished Good Identification (FG-ID).2

During the whole process, the fishermen keep a log book with all the above-mentioned information. This can also be accessed by external parties such as responsible government organisations. This helps  to control if the fish were caught legally. 2

One issue with this traceability system is that it only tracks the fish brought back to consumers. So, fish caught on the boat (but not used) will be thrown out into the sea without any tracking. Therefore, it is incredibly difficult to measure just how much fish is caught each year.2

Seafood Fraud

A problem across the globe is seafood fraud, meaning what you want to buy is not what you thought you’d get. Fish is often purposely mislabelled, as one specific species was unavailable or nowhere to be found. So, to meet consumer demands, a different fish is used and passed as the demanded species. It is often done to increase profit.3

To combat this fraud, third-party verification is important. They certify that the fish taken from the ocean is the same that ends up on our table. The transparent system also allows us to hold the responsible people accountable if something goes wrong because every step of the process is recorded, and it also assures food safety.3

So keep an eye out for those verification agencies to know what the fish you really purchased.  

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