Fisherman holding his catch, Tikina Wai, Fiji.  Tikina Wai villagers catch fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area,  a WWF Project. (Image: Brent Stirton / Getty Images)
Fisherman holding his catch, Tikina Wai, Fiji. Tikina Wai villagers catch fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area, a WWF Project. (Image: Brent Stirton / Getty Images)

BusinessJune 3, 2018

Blockchain: the new frontier in the battle against slavery for sushi

Fisherman holding his catch, Tikina Wai, Fiji.  Tikina Wai villagers catch fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area,  a WWF Project. (Image: Brent Stirton / Getty Images)
Fisherman holding his catch, Tikina Wai, Fiji. Tikina Wai villagers catch fish just outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA) area, a WWF Project. (Image: Brent Stirton / Getty Images)

How can we be sure catching the tuna we’re eating hasn’t also harmed humans? At the moment we can’t. But could new technology bring transparency to the fishing industry, and help stamp out unsafe conditions?

Sushi. We Kiwis love it. Incredible to think that in the 1980s it was still something many of us baulked at – raw fish?

Then, sushi was a high-end restaurant meal for the movers and shakers of our biggest cities only. But now we find sushi being eaten right across this country: in school lunch boxes, regional food courts, big city restaurants, takeaway joints and even at a drive-through restaurant in Auckland. No wonder sushi now rivals fish and chips for title of New Zealand’s National Meal.

It’s no surprise that it’s taken off, though. Most Kiwis love fish, and as we’ve started to focus more on our health and wellbeing in the last twenty years, the shift away from fried takeaway treats to a lighter meal like sushi that usually includes rice and often vegetables too seems logical, and delicious. 

But while we Kiwis love sushi, and love fish too; we also like to think of ourselves as living in the land of the fair go. Many of us like to believe the story that ours is a country founded on egalitarian principles of ‘mateship’. And that’s where, for many of us, the discomfort with one of the main ingredients in our beloved sushi – tuna – comes in.

(Image: Pixabay)

With the release of the excellent Stuff Circuit ‘Caught’ report; and the Greenpeace investigation into the use of modern-day slavery in the tuna fishing industry, there is no denying that purchasing some kinds of tuna is supporting people who are doing the wrong thing. 

How can we be sure of the origin of the tuna we buy for lunchbox nori rolls; or for our takeaway sashimi plates? Can we be sure the tuna we’re eating has been caught ethically, sustainably and professionally? Were the fishing crew paid a fair wage and treated respectfully?

While there is some canned tuna on the market in New Zealand that is certified sustainable seafood from the Marine Stewardship Council; when it comes to fresh tuna, as the media is reporting, the answer is no. No, we can’t be sure of the origin of our tuna. No, we don’t know anything about whether it has been caught ethically or sustainably. No, we don’t have enough information to make a good decision. Not yet.

As Greenpeace note in their chilling Misery at Sea report, “What we discovered onboard some of these fishing vessels, which often operate on the high seas and don’t come into port – sometimes for years at a time – is nothing less than modern-day slavery. We’re talking abuse, rape, starvation and even murder – and it’s all for tuna.”

Now we’ve seen the hard evidence in the Caught report, and read Greenpeace’s document, we can’t ignore it. As decent human beings, we seem to have no option but to put aside our beloved fresh tuna until we can be sure that we’re not supporting an industry that is hurting, even killing people.

Reef fish displayed in a fishermens boat in Suva harbour. (Image: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

It doesn’t have to be like this.  As seems to be so often the way in 2018 – blockchain technology is a key step in the process of change for good.

To put it simply; blockchain allows data to be attached to every step of the fishing process. This data allows tuna to be tracked throughout the process, and provides transparency along the way.

For the last few years here at WWF-New Zealand, we’ve been working with our partners in the Pacific region to help bring transparency and traceability to the tuna fishing industry. We’ve proved that together, it is possible work with the tuna fishers who want to prove they are doing the right thing – acting ethically by paying staff a fair wage, and fishing using sustainable methods in appropriate waters, at the right time of year and season.

Blockchain helps them prove it, because at each step of the process, data is plugged into the system to confirm the origin of each fish; the route the fish takes through the processing system and how it has reached the retailer. This then allows consumers to know where fish has come from, who caught it, and how it has reached them before they decide which tuna product to buy, or not to buy.

Last month, we were part of the first trial to trace a yellowfin tuna fish via blockchain all the way from the deck of a boat in Fiji to sushi platters in San Fransisco. The technology is there, and it works.

Fisherman at Nasese foreshore, sorting out the catch of the day, Fiji. (Image: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Here in New Zealand, we are very close to being able to buy tuna that can be traced via blockchain in our supermarkets. Our partners in Fiji are already using blockchain to track the yellow fin tuna that is caught on their boats, and negotiations are underway with retailers right now to bring this product to market.

The last step of the project is now up to us. As Kiwis, we have to decide whether we want to continue to support those in the fishing industry who choose to participate in non-sustainable or unethical operations.

Or, we can stand up for what’s right, stand in solidarity with our fellow human beings caught in misery on modern day slave ships, and refuse tuna that is not proven to have come from the best fishing boats with the highest standards and using only the most sustainable, ethical methods of operations. 

And we can ask our retailers when they will have blockchain traceable tuna available for sale, and refuse tuna products that we’re not sure of, both at the supermarket shelf and in the food court.

So at WWF-New Zealand, we take our hats off to Greenpeace and the investigators who have shined the light on this critical issue. We want to celebrate the individuals facilitating the implementation of blockchain technology in this industry to give consumers a real choice.

And we ask our fellow Kiwis: will we be complicit in crimes against our fellow human beings; or will we stand up for what’s right and support those in the industry who are striving to do the right thing, by demanding and purchasing blockchain tuna?

I know what I’ll be doing. And I look forward to the day when we can enjoy our tuna sushi with a clear conscience, knowing that no-one has been harmed* in the making of our lunch.

*Except the fish

Livia Esterhazy is the CEO of WWF-New Zealand

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