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Using digital technologies to protect, restore and promote life below water

Provide a case study on how digital technology is used to conserve & sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Looking up at fish swimming towards fishing boat
© RMIT 2023

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 aims to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

Fishing – specifically over-fishing – is one of the leading causes of loss of life and biodiversity in the world’s oceans. Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in the quantity of fish and other seafood consumed driven both by population growth and by the quantity consumed per person (Our World in Data, 2021).

Commercial fishing, by its very nature, takes place largely in parts of the world which are beyond the reach of monitoring infrastructure and therefore hard to maintain accountability. This creates a range of problems in fishing supply chains, including the working conditions of fishers and the sustainability of the fishing catch (Tickler et al., 2018). Efforts to monitor fishing are difficult and dangerous, with those observing boats sometimes going missing in mysterious circumstances while on duty (McVeigh, 2020). Nonetheless, efforts to ensure the sustainability of the world’s fish are ongoing. Recently, blockchain technology has been utilised to assist in these efforts.

What is a ‘blockchain’?

A blockchain is a type of distributed ledger technology (DLT). DLTs are, like traditional ledgers, lists of transactions. And like traditional ledgers, blockchain was created to record financial transaction data. Unlike with traditional systems, however, blockchain transactions do not require an intermediary – a bank for example – because the blockchain system is a closed system and the data are stored on all the computers within that network. Data are entered into a block, generating a unique cryptographic code (a ‘hash’) and a time stamp. When another transaction takes place, this process is repeated, and the hash from the previous transaction is added to link the two blocks together. Linked records therefore create a ‘chain’ of ‘blocks’ – a blockchain.

In a fishing supply chain context, the ‘transactions’ that can be recorded are where and when the fish are caught and transferred from fishing vessel to a larger ship and to port. Ownership along a chain of custody can be tracked using other technologies working in tandem with the blockchain. In this way, information on location, conditions, and the identity of people entering data onto the blockchain can be recorded.

How blockchain is used by responsible fisheries

TraSeable Solutions is a Fiji-headquartered provider of blockchain services for responsible fisheries. The company contracted with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and ConsenSys, an American software technology company providing blockchain services. TraSeable deployed its blockchain solution for monitoring the sustainability of Pacific tuna. TraSeable’s solution gives consumers data on the location of tuna caught using a smartphone app. Satellite data are collected and entered automatically onto the blockchain while vessels are at sea and the catch logged and processed at ports, where each catch is linked to a QR code to enable tracking through processing. In this way, data are available from the time of the catch until the fish arrives at a retail outlet.

Benefits of blockchain technology

The use of blockchain technology in this case offers three major benefits. First, the system is able to track material more efficiently than previous systems. This increases both the accuracy and efficiency of fisheries monitoring. It also reduces risk to human life, since it reduces the requirement for fisheries observers on vessels. Second, it helps to protect tuna populations in the Western Pacific by helping to monitor the numbers of fish caught and ensuring that those brought to ports under the system are caught in legal fishing zones. Finally, TraSeable Solutions’ method empowers the consumer to make choices about the sustainability of the fish they wish to consume.

Barriers, problems, and challenges

The two main challenges faced by TraSeable Solutions’ Western Pacific fisheries project at the time the solution was trialled were related to infrastructure. First, out at sea there remain issues with infrastructure. Neither the hardware nor the ability to input data are uniform, reducing the number of vessels on which the solution can be reliably used. Second, scalability remained an issue because blockchain lacked adequate, agreed data entry standards.

Lessons learned

There are both positive lessons and warnings for future projects to be taken from TraSeable Solutions’ project with WWF and COnsensys in the Western Pacific. On the plus side, it is clear that a solution based on a blockchain can reliably trace fish caught and ensure that they are caught in legal areas.

However, issues remain with data governance and with the market mechanism underpinning the solution. First, without standards on blockchain infrastructure and data, problems will continue with interoperability, comparability, and quality of data. Second, solutions based on a market mechanism – relying on the consumer to pay a premium for sustainability – are (to some extent) at the mercy of the strength of the wider economy, of consumer trust in claims to sustainability of the products they buy, and their willingness to pay in general. The scalability of the solution is therefore an open question which can only be answered by future investment in trials.

© RMIT 2023
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