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Interoperability: the key to unlocking truly traceable seafood

  • POSTED: 06/06/2024
  • AUTHOR: Celesta Maas

No one expects their World Ocean Day to be about interoperability of data systems: but it might be the seafood saviour you didn’t know you needed. 

Recent years have seen the increasing rise of ‘conscious consumers’ – people across the world who want to know exactly what they’re purchasing, and who put real emphasis on seeking products that are ethical and sustainable. Consumers want to know what they’re buying, where it’s from, and that they can trust its sourcing. This drive from the public is mirrored and fuelled by responsible retailers, and those who sell to retailers, and those who sell to the sellers…and onwards in a chain that takes us all the way back to factory, farm, or boat. 

Not only is this drive coming from consumers, but the clear direction of travel for regulators and legislators globally is to push for more accountability, evidence and guarantees from seafood producers that what they’re selling is solid from a sustainability perspective. 

Businesses across the world are in the business of acting sustainably, and evidencing this to assure conscious consumers they can buy their products, worry-free.

GDST is in the business of building, supporting and growing this assurance across seafood supply chains through promoting seafood traceability. This World Oceans Day, we want to take a moment to unpack the complex language around our mission. At the heart of both the jargon and the mission is one word: interoperability.

What exactly is interoperability?

Interoperability might seem a hypertechnical – and even daunting – word, but we have a very simple analogy to explain it. 

Have you ever tried to open an image, only to be faced with an error message that the file format is ‘not supported’? Have you ever tried to charge a phone or a laptop and found that although you have a bunch of cables, none of them fit? That’s because file types, and cables – like supply chain data – are not universal. There is no interoperable image format or charger that works across the board. 

And that’s exactly what interoperability in seafood traceability is all about – making all data types and forms universally accessible and interpretable to all the actors in the chain: a common language that carries information from deck, or farm, to dish. This is enormously needed in the seafood world, where products caught or harvested on one side of the world will pass through many hands – many businesses – before being sold to consumers on the other.

Interoperability is the foundation on which conscious consumption of seafood rests. In its simplest form, it describes the ability of different IT systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data and jointly use information (FishWise, 2015), but the transformative reality of this is that it has the potential to build genuine sustainability assurance into some of the world’s most complex supply chains. 

Why is it so urgent in the seafood industry?

As well as buyers placing increasing value on the quality and authenticity of seafood, and tracing it to its source can help them craft that purchasing evaluation, a seafood product from a fully traceable supply chain is one that is unlikely to have been harvested from an illegally-operating vessel or farm. This means that data interoperability is actually a crucial part of ensuring environmental sustainability (illegal fishing plunders stocks regardless of their status and vulnerability), and – importantly – part of removing seafood products that may result from human rights abuses at sea from supermarket shelves. 

But the seafood industry is one of the last major, worldwide sectors to adopt comprehensive digital traceability, and has historically relied on a ‘one up, one down’ system. This is where, for example, a cannery factory might exchange information with the processor it buys the prepared seafood from and the distributor that it sells the canned product to, but would not be able to directly access the data from the actors two, three, or four times removed from them in the supply chain. This game of Chinese whispers is not good enough to ensure robust traceability from deck to plate. 

Integrated, interoperable digital traceability systems improve the confidence of the data being shared, because it means each actor, regardless of their position in the supply chain, can pull data from the same pool. 

What is the GDST doing to facilitate a transformation toward interoperable seafood traceability?

The Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) is leading a collective movement to promote a universal Standard on traceability for seafood businesses to implement. Our mission is to improve trust across global fishery and aquaculture supply chains.

Importantly, we want to make it as efficient as possible for businesses to pull the information they need from an accessible source, as opposed to pushing their business partners for the insights they need. In terms of minimising the burden, interoperability is the key. 

The Standard has been driven by dialogues with industry, originally coordinated by the World Wildlife Fund, the Institute of Food Technologists and Global Food Traceability Centre, aiming to deliver greater supply chain traceability and sustainability across the sector.

The Dialogues, now coordinated by GDST, continue to inform the technical Standard, which contains two main elements: 

  1. Identifying the minimum data elements that need to be documented and transmitted within GDST-compliant seafood supply chains. 
  2. Governing the technical formats and nomenclatures for sharing data among interoperable traceability systems. 

Industry involvement in designing and updating the Standard is key to its usability and applicability, ensuring it’s workable and desirable for industry to use it, now and in the future. 

To enable industry to apply the Standard we provide alongside the technical Standard, supporting guidance in how to understand and implement it, sharing what it means and how it adds value for businesses across all stages of the supply chain. 

Our Partners include some of the world’s leading seafood producers and marketers, all of whom are committed to promoting interoperability throughout their supply chains. An array of other tech and software businesses are also GDST Partners, working to accelerate chain-wide shifts towards adopting interoperable systems. 

In a world where consumers are paying more attention than ever to where their seafood is coming from and where new legal regulations surrounding traceability are becoming more commonplace, the GDST is working to bring together those facing these emerging challenges with those who hold the solutions. 

Whether you are a seafood business seeking these solutions or a tech company with a potential answer, the GDST wants to hear from you: https://thegdst.org/get-involved/

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