Tech and Business Innovation are Clearing Up Seafood's Foggy Supply Chain

01/19/2016 10:14 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2017

The seafood industry's supply chain is notably opaque, complex and, in some areas, technologically deprived, experts say. But that doesn't mean it's stuck in the past. Dedicated efforts over the past two decades have improved the seafood supply chain's sustainability -- and we have an opportunity to do much more over the next several years.

Businesses, NGOs and governments have been collaborating to improve seafood supply chain transparency and sustainability since the 1990s, as Meredith Lopuch of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation noted during a panel discussion at the Fish 2.0 Competition Finals & Seafood Innovation Forum in November.

The creation of the Marine Stewardship Council as a collaboration between industry and an environmental NGO (the World Wildlife Fund), was a new concept in 1997, she recalled. "It was pretty shocking to the sector. The headline in the industry media was, 'What is Unilever doing in bed with the treehuggers?'" said Lopuch, adding that within a decade, that collaboration led the way to sustainability commitments and NGO partnerships from many other large retailers, including Walmart.

That kind of progress shows the potential for change when multiple actors come together to make it happen. An increasing sense of urgency about addressing seafood's sustainability and transparency challenges is already inspiring new technologies and market approaches that focus on some of the toughest problems. If everyone from investors to retailers gets on board, these innovations can become real solutions.

Technologies enabling traceability are key

NGOs and retailers need to work more closely together to demand traceability -- the ability to track seafood's source, the conditions under which it was farmed or caught, and the intermediaries it passed through -- panelists said.

"This industry reminds me of thick San Francisco fog," said Mark Barnekow, CEO of BluWrap, which uses oxygen-management technology to transport seafood fresh without ice, air freight or polystyrene. "I've been working with different supply chains for 25 years ... and this may be the most antiquated industry I've ever seen."

That fog can hide negative impacts, including overfishing, fraud, human rights abuses in the labor force, pollution and resource depletion. It also makes it difficult for retailers with strong sustainability commitments to be certain that the seafood they are buying lives up to those commitments.

Recent news coverage has revealed widespread labor abuses in certain seafood markets, often interwoven with environmental problems. For example, slavery is a problem in parts of Thai shrimp supply chains, which have very little oversight, according to panelist Ed Marcum of Humanity United. Ending labor abuses will take a concerted effort, he said, including "commonality among environmental and labor rights activists. No single actor can solve this."

Market actors make a difference. "The government of Thailand is going to have to do more, lest they lose out [on market share] to someone who will do better," Marcum said. "Businesses are going to have to take collective action -- when they act individually they lose leverage. NGOs need to shine a spotlight but be constructive. It's not enough to blame and shame. There's an opportunity to be more solutions oriented."

Investors can jump-start the process

There are a lot of reasons for investors to support traceability systems that would make transparency a part of daily business practice in the seafood industry, and ultimately support sustainability as well. According to Allied Market Research, the market for food traceability products and technologies is expected to grow to $14.1 billion by 2019. That growth is fueled by increased government reporting requirements, consumers who want to know where their food comes from, and businesses answering to both regulators and customers. (For details, see the Fish 2.0 market report on traceability.)

Finding and highlighting high-impact companies in this space was one of the goals of the Fish 2.0 competition, and we were happy to see several traceability-focused ventures among the 18 finalists and 19 runners-up. Innovation opportunities related to transparency exist at all points on the supply chain. The top-scoring companies included California-based Pelagic Data Systems, which provides remote data capture for boats at sea through a solar-powered plastic box that gathers information on the catch and uploads it to databases via cell networks, and Salty Girl Seafood, another California company, which targets consumers with premarinated, packaged seafood that includes source information on the catch.

Opportunities in the traceability field generally fall into four categories, and we saw innovators in all of them during the competition:

Improving vessel-tracking technologies. Shellcatch also provides remote data capture and vessel monitoring, with the addition of visual identification--video of the catch on the boat.

Integrating DNA and biological testing into supply chains. TRUfish, based in North Carolina, offers DNA testing of sample fish from batches, allowing resellers and consumers to verify what species is actually being sold.

Providing software, data collection platforms and sharing tools. FairAgora Asia, based in Bangkok, has developed a software platform called Verifik8 that tracks, manages and displays social and environmental data on seafood operations.

Building brands based on sustainable, traceable food products. Alaska Community Seafood Hub delivers sustainable "storied" fish through a community-supported fishery and wholesale sales. Love the Wild, based in Colorado, sells traceable sustainable fish packaged with gourmet sauces, bought from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries and from aquaculture operations that meet Global Aquaculture Alliance guidelines. And New Mexico Shrimp Co. is meeting the demand for traceable shrimp by farming with environmentally sustainable practices.

Whether they are technological solutions, new social designs or both, these changes are going to take time to design and implement at scale. The good news is that the entrepreneurs and organizers gathered at Fish 2.0 included a significant number of millennials as well as several seasoned technology experts with interests in applying their expertise to these issues. In ten years, we will have accumulated a wealth of experience about how to better steward human food systems and the ocean. There's a real chance that, by then, the currents of retailers pressing for sustainability, customers demanding accountability, and investors interested in new technologies will converge to defog the global seafood supply chain.

For the second conversation in our Purpose@Work series -- a discussion designed to explore how we can infuse a deep sense of purpose into our work -- we're going to focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

How are you using technology to elevate purpose in your organization, community, or project? Let us know at PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com or by tweeting with #PurposeAtWork.