Measuring snapper in the processing plant, Indonesia. Photo © Jeremy Rude/TNC

Measuring snapper in the processing plant, Indonesia. Photo © Jeremy Rude/TNC

The primary ways in which seafood supply chains perpetuate poor fisheries management relate to lack of transparency, absence of traceability, and perverse incentives that encourage unsustainable fishing practices. However, it must be noted that existing supply chain structures were not necessarily intentionally designed; rather, they may be legacy systems that evolved over time with the intent to move highly perishable (and presumed inexhaustible) product from one region to another. While intentional fraud and nefarious practices certainly exist, seafood supply chain actors behave as they do largely in response to the system in which they operate. As is typical of complex problems, it is important to note that resolving any of these issues on its own, while helpful, will not create sustainable fisheries on a global scale. Instead, all of these core challenges must be addressed, preferably through coordinated and simultaneous efforts, in order to shift the entire system. In the next section, emerging solutions to address these challenges are presented.

Lack of Vessel-Level Data Capture

What it is: Lack of paper or electronic records of where, when, how, by whom, and what was caught by each vessel for each trip. Ideally, this information would be recorded at the most granular level of fishing activity, such as by a series of traps in one location, or individual net hauls, etc. For small-scale fishers, and depending on the method of harvest, data capture may make the most sense at the end of a fishing set, or at the landing site.

Where it occurs: In many fisheries around the world, fishers are not required to report their catch to the government nor to any supply chain entity. Records of transactions with first receivers, if they exist, often do not include relevant catch data, but rather provide only a logbook of total weight, price, and sometimes species. Even when information is recorded by the first receiver it is usually lost at some point further up the supply chain. The default for data sharing is that suppliers will pass along only the information required or requested by their customers, or by government rules and regulations. Without clients demanding additional data on catch origin, mid-chain players will not spend their resources to capture or share those details—even when they have them.

Why it matters: Vessel-level data is the most relevant information for resource management and for determining the sustainability and legality of a product. Fisheries-dependent data is often the only available data for determining stock health, especially in countries where government resources are too strapped to run fisheries-independent data collection. In addition, all company branding and consumer-facing marketing initiatives that claim to deliver sustainable seafood must have access to vessel-level data (and verification of it) to ensure the business is, in fact, supporting more responsible practices on the water.

Product Transformation Prior to Data Recording

What it is: When a product or group of products is processed prior to the first instance of data collection. This can include:

  • Grading of product to selectively deliver certain species or sizes to a processor. Recorded catch at this stage does not account for the original catch composition;
  • Removal of flesh from the shell before sizing or sex is determined;
  • Skinning and fileting a fish before species identification has occurred.

Where it occurs: In some fisheries, early product transformation tends to occur on deck aboard vessels as a way to consolidate catch and reduce weight (when quotas are in place) or to hide illegal product (e.g., juveniles). Grading or shelling may also take place dockside upon receipt by the first receiver before the product is moved to a more formal processing facility where data are recorded more regularly.

Why it matters: Transforming product, when driven by the purest of intentions, is a logistics decision. For example, conch fishers do not want to take up space in their small boats or in their coolers with conch shells; so they remove the meat while still at sea and discard the shells overboard. Without the shells, it is impossible to know the age of the conch—which is determined by shell length and shell lip thickness. Regardless of motive, early product transformation can thwart sustainability efforts related to the harvest of particular species, juveniles, or certain sexes.

Aggregation of Supply

What it is: The mixing of product from different fishing events into a single volume makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accurately determine catch origin, catch method, date of harvest, size composition, or any other data related to the fishing activity.

Where it occurs: Aggregation tends to occur at the beginning of the supply chain—on the deck of the vessel, or at the level of the first receiver. With limited hold space, fishers often combine product from different fishing events, even if sets are separated by long distances and occur over several days. Likewise, most processing plants grade product according to quality or size, regardless of when, where, or how it was caught. As this sorting occurs, product from different batches is mixed and moved along the processing line en masse.

Why it matters: Aggregation makes it impossible to differentiate responsibly harvested product in the marketplace, as the critical information regarding the catch is lost. Aggregation perpetuates “mystery fish” as opposed to promoting “storied fish” as the norm.

Relationship Dynamics

What it is: Complex, personal, and imbalanced relationships are common in the seafood supply chain.

Where it occurs: Relationship dynamics occur throughout the supply chain, but ones of particular interest are those between the producer and first receiver (a middleman who often also serves as the processor or wholesaler).

Why it matters: Determining an appropriate intervention strategy for shifting supply chains depends on understanding the human side of the supply chain equation. Knowing which actors hold power and the nature of those relationships is critical for determining whether and how to broach an idea around sustainable management with a community or company. In many cases, the tight-knit and familial relationships between fishers and middlemen mean that some strategies may be more appropriate than others. For example, one popular suggestion for incentivizing fishers to adopt more sustainable practices involves disintermediating the supply chain and securing direct market access to end buyers willing to give fishermen a price premium for responsibly harvested product. In some circumstances, this approach may mean skipping over an exploitative supplier that had been undercutting fishers; in other cases, it may means leap-frogging a fisher’s close relative, trusted friend, or community-member—possibly even someone who finances his fishing activities or covers his family’s medical costs. Thus, understanding the potential personal and interpersonal ramifications of a particular intervention or engagement is of utmost importance, as leveraging supply chain relationships can be the determining factor for success.

Fisherman Typically Are Not Businessmen

What it is: Fishers are experts at fishing, but might not have the knowhow or experience necessary to engage more productively (and sustainably) in the seafood industry.

Where it occurs: At the producers level of the supply chain.

Why it matters: Many fishers are frustrated by the fact that in order to succeed as successful, sustainable fishers, their time is spent doing everything but fishing. Often, strategies to help fishers get more value for their products require skills in processing, marketing, price negotiations, logistics (transport, product handling), management and administration (e.g., inventory management, purchase orders, invoices, etc.), and even community organizing (via coops, sectors, associations or other structures). A realistic strategy for sustainable management must provide fishers with the necessary business-related support services so that they can focus instead on changing their fishing practices (including new gear types, if necessary) .

Cultural Preferences

What it is: These are the ingrained expectations, assumptions, and perceptions that shape everything from which species are considered “favored” to the way fishers view their roles in the community.

Where it occurs: Most frequently at the two ends of the supply chain: producers and consumers.

Why it matters: Cultural norms can explain a lot about the root motivations or causes for certain behaviors. They are also often the most difficult to shift, especially if they are tied to deeply held values. Understanding the beliefs and expectations that directly influence fisher behavior is critical to crafting strategies that align—and perhaps even leverage—those values, rather than fighting against them.

These last three challenges are not directly linked to the supply chain, but hold great influence over how effectively supply chain players can respond to sustainability initiatives.

Lack of Monitoring and Enforcement

What it is: A glaring hole in government responsiveness to actors in the supply chain that are breaking the rules.

Why it matters: Some interventions require regulatory changes (such as permits for exclusive access rights) that depend on proper enforcement for effectiveness. A significant lack of enforcement—both on the water and inside supply chain facilities—quickly erodes the confidence of players making sacrifices to ‘do the right thing.’ While it is impossible to root out all “bad” behavior from a fishery, even with the most sophisticated technology and well-funded government agency, fishers and supply chain players need at least some level of assurance that the government will support their efforts to make changes to comply with more responsible fisheries management.

Lack of Database and Data Management Capacity

What it is: Many emerging markets lack the institutional resources to support the collection, management, and analysis of fisheries data. Even if it were collected, there is literally nowhere for this information to go.

Why it matters: Whether industry-based, collected from fishers, or via independent methods, efforts to improve data capture will fail to improve fisheries if there is no mechanism for storing, accessing, and analyzing. Currently, many initiatives on how to improve information for data poor regions focus on the capture of data while ignoring the need for backend structures to support this effort. Database management is a heavy lift, requiring maintenance, storage capacity, and strategic development of access rights and security. The latter especially requires careful planning and dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure legality and effective use of the database for both industry and fisheries benefits.

Interrelatedness of Challenges

What it is: Although the challenges just outlined were presented as distinct obstacles, they are actually interrelated. They create feedback loops that serve to perpetuate the status quo, failing to reward fishers for responsible practices, and preventing the flow of information required for storied fish to reach the market.

Why it matters: Attempting to remove just one barrier will likely not result in significant change. The challenges must be addressed simultaneously, through multi-pronged approaches and with buy-in and participation from various supply chain actors and other stakeholders. However, just as the challenges are caused by supply chain characteristics and dynamics, the removal of the barriers may create an opening for supply chains to act as drivers that incentivize sustainable management.  In the next section, emerging solutions to address these challenges are presented.


The information in this section was provided by Future of Fish. For more information please contact Future of Fish.


For an extensive list of papers and reports on this and other coral reef fisheries topics, visit the Coral Reef Fisheries Resource Library on the Conservation Gateway.


Making Sense of Wild Seafood Supply Chains

Return to Top

Last updated February 5, 2016

Translate »