An insight into traceability tools for small-scale tuna fisheries

IPNLF’s Managing Director Martin Purves explores why robust traceability is essential for small-scale fisheries and the emerging initiatives improving supply chain transparency

The demand for transparency and comprehensive and effective traceability systems in seafood supply chains continues to grow. Today, consumers are interested in the origin of the tuna in their sandwich, the fishing gear used to catch the squid in their paella, the processor who handled the crab in their salad, and the distance travelled by the cod in their fish and chips. More poignantly, consumers want to be assured that their seafood purchases are not linked to human rights abuses and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities. The range of traceability tools available to fisheries continues to grow, providing an opportune moment to reflect on the applications of these tools; especially for the one-by-one fisheries we work with which are typically small to medium-scale operations that are spread over wide geographical areas, often in remote locations.


With global issues like labour abuses and consumer trust to consider, it is essential that supply chains strive to be traceable and transparent. But what is the difference between traceability and transparency? - in a nutshell, traceability enables food products to be closely tracked forwards and backwards through the supply chain (from harvest to consumer), while transparency is dependent on the availability and communication of information on the methods and practices involved in bringing a product from source to market (e.g. sourcing locations, capture methods, supplier etc.), thus enabling purchasers to make informed choices.


At IPNLF, we are firm supporters of greater transparency and traceability in seafood supply chains. For the small-scale one-by-one tuna fisheries we work with, better traceability can lead to a range of positive outcomes, such as improved market access (through certification systems and consumer trust) and improved fisheries data capture to support science and management decisions; both of which ultimately contribute to thriving fisheries and the wellbeing of coastal communities. Furthermore, the fisheries we work with are renowned for social good as well as their low environmental impacts. Having robust traceability systems in place helps shine a light on such good practice.


Recently, IPNLF has been working collaboratively on a number of initiatives that support tuna supply chain traceability in small and medium-scale one-by-one fisheries.

Fisheries Information System

To comply with data capture demands and fulfil all the latest international traceability requirements regarding catch and vessel reporting in the Maldives, IPNLF teamed up with some of our Member organisations and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture to develop a web-enabled Fisheries Information System (FIS) to integrate logbook catch data, fish purchase information, and catch certificates. As well as providing the necessary assurances related to Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, the data provided by the FIS also meets the reporting requirements of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the regional body responsible for managing tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean and adjacent seas. This dynamic traceability tool increases the timely submission of data and therefore its availability for stock assessments and/or management decisions. Building upon the techniology of the FIS, IPNLF and our partners in the Maldives are undertaking a second stage of the progect to develop a mobile app to enables skippers to report their catch and effort statistics directly to fisheries authorities and mitigates the need to periodically submit paper logbooks for data collection purposes. 

Fish Panel

In Indonesia, IPNLF is currently driving a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) for the pole-and-line and handline tuna fishery with the end goal of achieving MSC certification. Partnered with the Indonesian Pole & Line and Handline Fisheries Association (AP2HI) and Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI), a local NGO that is focused on achieving sustainable and responsible fisheries, IPNLF developed and launched a vessel registry system for AP2HI Member vessels. Via a mobile-enabled web application, vessels can be audited at the quayside or at sea, enabling vessel details and supporting documents to be checked against AP2HI’s vessel database. To date, the Fish Panel system holds information on more than 100 pole-and-line and 700 handline vessels, and will provide the foundation for a comprehensive fishery information system, which will help to meet MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) requirements on product traceability.

IPNLF, together with its local Indonesian partners, also supported a ProActive Vessel Register (PVR) pilot to promote greater transparency in pole-and-line and handline tuna supply chains in Indonesia. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) initially developed the PVR as a tool to provide information on the tuna supply chains linked to large-scale purse seine vessels. The PVR is an online, voluntary register of fishing vessels that verifies a vessels commitment to certain sustainable fishing practices. During the PVR pilot, data on the vessels were collected at field sites, uploaded to the AP2HI and MDPI databases, and ultimately transferred to the PVR database.


Emerging technology

British technology company Provenance completed a pilot project in collaboration with IPNLF, using emerging technology to track tuna along the supply chain from landing to factory and beyond. Using blockchain as a ledger of events between computers, receiving data from SMS messages from fishers’ phones and other entries along the value chain, Provenance tracked a handline caught yellowfin tuna from Maluku, Indonesia, demonstrating how this technology has the potential to support traceability in small-scale fisheries. This pilot project has also shown how storytelling can be a very powerful tool to help smaller-scale fisheries gain consumer trust and access more lucrative markets.


Many of the characteristics that define small-scale tuna fisheries, such as the small size and geographic spread of fishing operations, can create complexities in the application of effective traceability initiatives. Small-scale tuna fisheries also face a range of challenges in terms of management measures, often being forgotten or disregarded at the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) meetings and by local governmental policies. In recognition of this, the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) states that ‘special consideration’ must be given to traceability practises in developing countries and small-scale fisheries. Further, COFI caution against traceability tools that cannot be universally applicable to all fisheries but are being promoted as a market entry point in procurement advice as this could constitute a Technical Barrier to Trade.

For instance, while the PVR pilot project successfully registered small-scale vessels in a number of remote locations, it highlighted challenges that these small-scale operators might face should buyers adopt “one-size-fits-all” solutions. One important issue is the disproportionate higher costs that a small-scale tuna vessel could face, compared to those of a large-scale industrial operators. Although PVR registration is currently free for all vessels, there are additional costs associated with data collection for small-scale fisheries operating in more remote areas—data collection that is necessary for the initial listing on the PVR and that many large-scale industrial operators may not face in the same manner.

Take the example of a single-operator handline vessel that might only catch one large yellowfin per day or a coastal pole-and-line vessel that catches between 1-5 tonnes, depending on the vessel size. These vessels are often rudimentary, and fishermen have limited access to capital or technology. The catches and revenues of one-by-one vessels pale in comparison to multi-million dollar large-scale vessels, some of which catch more than 10,000 tonnes of tuna in a single year.

There are other major logistical differences to consider which have implications on the cost of adding and auditing these fisheries. For instance, large industrial vessels only use large landing ports, whereas small-scale operators may be based in their villages or on remote islands. Who would pay for the registration, audits, and site visits in remote locations spread all around the world? Should that responsibility rest with the buyers who are expecting these vessels to be registered on the PVR, other supply chain actors, governments or NGOs? If such platforms are an entry point for market access, should buyers take some responsibility to ensure that costs do not discriminate against small-scale fishermen? Equitable solutions must be found.


Despite some inherent difficulties faced when applying traceability and transparency initiatives to small-scale fisheries, many organisations, including IPNLF and our partners, are working to develop effective tools to help fisheries meet international requirements. Organisations such as This FishFuture of FishProvenanceAbalobi and mFisheries are spearheading innovative projects to examine supply chain traceability and develop trusted systems, some of which are consumer facing. This broad range of initiatives reflects the considerable complexities of the small-scale fisheries sector.

With increasing demands in key market states, including the EU and US, the time has come to ensure that seafood products can be traced back to their source. We recognise that some traceability and transparency tools are more appropriate than others, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach will disadvantage smaller-scale operators. The key element to keep in mind is the overall objective of these tools – to ensure products are what they say they are, that they are caught in compliance with the relevant management regulations, and adhere to international fisheries best practice. In doing this, it’s important to recognise the situation of small-scale fishers, as well as the intersection of national and international regulations.

To this end, IPNLF is continuing to work with its Member network and partners, such as USAID Oceans, to find solutions that are fair to fisheries and the coastal communities dependent upon them and can also provide assurances for supply chains and consumers.