Today, consumers, distributors and even many seafood processors commonly lack basic information about the fisheries from which fish products originate. In general, they cannot know whether the fisheries are overfished or well-managed. They cannot even be assured that the fish were caught legally – a major concern when current evidence suggests that illegal fishing could provide up to around 30% of the wild-caught seafood that reaches global markets and, ultimately, people’s plates.

Overfishing cannot end without some fundamental changes in the fishing and seafood trade. Among the most important of these is to introduce traceability and transparency into seafood supply chains. Their absence is a fundamental obstacle to getting market signals in line with sustainability.

Such a system was introduced in 2009 by the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) for the Atlantic bluefin tuna – whose dwindling stocks and exorbitant price on fish markets have been highly publicized. The required government certification at each stage of the supply chain, from the oceans to consumers’ shopping carts, has dramatically improved compliance with ICCAT regulations. Before this measure, illegally produced tuna was easily confounded with legal products and almost no incentive existed for fishermen, fish farmers, traders or retailers to respect ICCAT rules. Perhaps most importantly, the measure raised consumer awareness around the issue of illegal fishing activity as well as its serious impact on the sustainability of tuna resources.

The story is not over yet – ICCAT is now working on the introduction of an electric, internet-based traceability system which will be both user-friendly and resource-efficient. Other relevant international organizations are also seriously considering the expansion of traceability of all tuna and other major species. This is an example of great success, not only for the conservation of marine species but also in transparent and accountable supply chain management.

As the transformation of practices across supply chains requires the collaboration of all stakeholders involved, I hope that we can further garner the support of leaders in government, business and civil society to support this movement. With strengthened traceability systems consumers may well have easy access to information about what they eat, in a not-so-distant future. This would surely and significantly advance both the safety and sustainability of fish.

Author: Masanori Miyahara is the Deputy Director-General, Fisheries Agency, Japan

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Pictured: A fishmonger dries his daily catch of herring locally known tambang before selling the fish at a wet market in Manila. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco