From Catch to Consumer: A Summary of WWF’s Traceability Principles for Wild-Caught Fish Products

Created on Thursday, 19 May 2016


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Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing costs companies, fishermen, and consumers alike. Often coming from fisheries lacking strong and effective management measures, IUU fishing takes many shapes and forms, including activities such as violating catch quotas, misreporting catch information, fishing in marine protected areas, and has been linked to human rights abuses in seafood supply chains. Beyond the environmental and social devastation, the economic impact of IUU fishing is staggering – financial losses due to illegal fishing activities have been estimated to range between $10-23.5 billion annually.

To address these issues and help mitigate risks, companies are increasingly implementing traceability into their business policies, procurement guidelines, and business practices. There are many efforts across both the private sector and government that are seeking to improve supply chain transparency and implement robust traceability systems for the seafood industry. To help guide private and public sector stakeholders in implementing traceability systems and enabling transparency in wild-caught seafood supply chains, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) crafted a set of principles that outlines characteristics of effective wild-caught seafood traceability systems. While this set of six principles is not all inclusive, it can be viewed as a framework for the effective and successful implementation of traceability systems in wild-caught seafood supply chains.

Principle 1 – Essential Information

The backbone of effective traceability systems is the information they collect. For traceability to be effective, information must be collected, recorded, and follow the product throughout every step in the supply chain. While information can vary depending on the source fishery, basic key data elements (KDEs) – the pieces of information that establish the ‘who, what, when, where, and how’ of seafood products – are essential no matter which system is used. This information can be used to trace the fish from catch to consumer to ensure that wild-caught fish are from legal and verifiable sources, and in accordance with national and international laws. The more information collected, the better companies can mitigate the risk of IUU product entering their supply chains.

Principle 2 – Full Chain Traceability

While information collection is a valuable first step, traceability systems should provide “full chain” traceability from the point the product was harvested to the point of final sale. At any step along the supply chain, whether at a distributer, wholesaler, or grocery store counter, information should be readily available to verify legality of a product. To be”full chain traceable,” traceability systems must provide access to information about a product in all of its forms, across every step in the supply chain, and have the ability to be accessed when necessary. This does not mean, however, that confidential information be accessible to all players in the supply chain, but rather that the authorized parties have the critical pieces of information available to trace a product back through all stages of handling.

Principle 3 – Effective Tracking of Product Transformations

Seafood is often transformed, being combined with other products, processed, reconfigured, or re-packaged as evidenced by the many different forms of seafood products on the market. When seafood undergoes processing, it’s important to record those product transformations to ensure legality up to the final point of sale, avoid mislabeling of species, and prevent comingling of legal and illegal products. It is also important to track products (which may have been harvested from multiple fishing activities or fisheries) with sufficient identification and tracking of all inputs so that at the final point of sale, those products can be traced back to their origin or at least to a limited set of possible sources or fishing activities.

Principle 4 – Digital Information and Standardized Data Formats

Electronic recording of data, labelling, and tracking in standard data formats from point of harvest to point of final sale is crucial to verifying claims of legality and sustainability. WWF believes that even at small scales, these kinds of systems are within reach of commercial fishers, and should be a high priority for all traceability systems. Ideally, this push for electronic traceability systems would be lead by industry and establish minimum international requirements for better harmonization and interoperability across entire supply chains.

Principle 5 – Verification

For claims of full chain traceability to be validated, companies must employ credible and transparent internal and external verification or auditing, as well as effective government oversight and enforcement. Supply chain actors can be influential by adopting and publicly communicating their standards and policies for how they will increase transparency and implement traceability in their own supply chains.

Principle 6 – Transparency and Public Access to Information

A fundamental outcome of implementing full chain traceability is the ability for consumers and stakeholders to ultimately have access to information that helps them make well-informed, responsible choices. Traceability systems should emphasize maximum transparency, while not exposing confidential information. Governments and enforcement agencies can also use this information to ensure compliance with national and international laws.

In all, these six principles are intended as goal statements to be used as a benchmark to address concerns related to IUU fishing and to help guide stakeholders in establishing and improving their traceability systems. Traceability is just one tool among others (such as risk assessments, third party certifications, or audits) that businesses can use to combat IUU fishing and ensure transparency within their seafood supply chains.

You can find the entirety of WW’s Traceability Principles for Wild-Caught Fish Products here. To learn more about traceability in seafood supply chains, visit the FishWise Traceability Resources Page.