Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Fishing boats in Thailand
A new fisheries transparency initiative is designed to make it worth fishers’ while to share more information about their catch. Photo by Chirasak Tolertmongkol/Alamy Stock Photo

Using Cryptocurrency to Fight Cryptofishing

One company thinks it has a solution to fisheries’ myriad transparency problems.

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by Emma Bryce

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About 4.5 million fishing vessels traverse the seas, hauling up more than 100 million tonnes of seafood each year. But about 89 percent of this bounty comes from emerging markets in countries that collect only the most basic data on catch quantities and species. That fact haunts Jayson Berryhill: “So much of our seafood—we have no idea where it’s coming from.” This dearth of data undermines supply chain transparency, which is how 30 million tonnes of illegal and unreported fish go missing each year. It also means information is lacking on other crucial issues, such as the carbon footprint of different fisheries.

But what if you could plug that data gap with the help of the people who actually catch the fish? Berryhill and his colleagues at Eachmile Technologies—a company developing traceability technologies for agricultural and fisheries supply chains—are designing a computational system to do just that. Called Fishcoin, the company is creating a new cryptocurrency designed to encourage fishers to share information about their catch by rewarding them with mobile phone credit, a valuable commodity for fishers who spend long periods away from home.

Fishcoin is just one of many environmental sustainability efforts sprouting from blockchain technology—a computational technique that uses distributed computing to record and manage an irreversible and tamper-proof database. Blockchains can be used to chronicle anything that can be digitized, such as transactions between companies, bitcoin sales, or, in this case, the movement of fish along the supply chain.

Fishcoin would allow buyers to follow each step of a fish’s journey, right back to its origin. As global supply chains grow longer and increasingly fragmented, Berryhill says, the blockchain could illuminate this landscape and reduce fish fraud.

Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Fund launched a blockchain project in Fiji to improve tuna traceability: tuna are now fitted with scannable tags that upload information directly to the blockchain, offering buyers irrefutable proof of origin. The United Kingdom-based company Provenance also uses a blockchain to track the journeys of fresh produce, coffee, and fish.

But Fishcoin goes a step further. “Blockchain is a great mechanism for capturing data. But that’s not enough; we’ve got to have the incentive,” Berryhill says.

The trick to Fishcoin, Berryhill says, is that it brings multiple entities together: seafood companies, fishers, technology companies, and conservationists, many of whom already work with Eachmile. This setup enables a buyer to contact a fisher and ask for information about the catch method, size, quality, and origin of a fish. Once that fisher shares the data, the transaction is stored in the blockchain, and a virtual currency—the eponymous Fishcoin—is automatically delivered to the fisher’s digital wallet and can be exchanged for mobile phone credit.

To deliver its reward, Fishcoin partnered with a mobile phone company with over 550 service providers in about 135 countries. Fishcoin isn’t live yet, but its mobile credit scheme has already been tested in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The company hopes the rewards will be attractive enough to lure a critical mass of fishers. “We’re shedding more light on supply chains, and from that we’re able to refine them,” Berryhill says.

The hype around blockchain technology in recent years, however, has made some people wary. Steve Trent, cofounder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, says there is a risk that dishonest producers will share inaccurate data.

Berryhill says his company has anticipated this. Yet by making the data valuable and requiring people to share their identities when they exchange information, he expects it will become hard for fraudsters to succeed. Theoretically, people who repeatedly produce bogus data will get noticed and identified, and buyers will be compelled to call them out.

Trent cautions that blockchains as a tool simply can’t contend with the rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and complexity of the seafood industry: its myriad problems need multiple tailored solutions. “My view is that [the blockchain] does have very real potential, if we consider it in the context of a suite of initiatives,” he says. Trent adds that he’s eager to see how Fishcoin fares in field tests.

In the coming months, Eachmile plans to demonstrate Fishcoin with some of its seafood partners and officially launch its token system. One interested partner is the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative, a group working to align the goals of sustainability organizations with the needs of small-scale fishers in Asia.

Corey Peet, the organization’s managing director, believes Fishcoin has a unique power to illuminate the activities of Asia’s highly fragmented and often informal fisheries, where catch information is typically vague or impossible to obtain. Many of the small-scale fishers he works with are poverty stricken, he says. “To then ask them to start collecting all this data because a buyer wants it is a big ask. That’s where something like Fishcoin becomes more powerful, because there’s an immediate reward.

“This is offering light into a very dark space.”