From Bitcoin to Catch Documentation Schemes? / by Francisco Blaha

I know that technology isn’t going to solve all the issues around IUU fishing and slave labour, the same way it hasn't solved money laundering… but if it helps and is solid, I take it!

 My project in development with FIMS

My project in development with FIMS

I do believe that a way ahead is around something that I have named “private transparency” (the benefits of English not being my 1st language) that works in principle as a decentralised network where everyone along a data chain knows “a bit of information” as part of a data field that makes sense, as long as everyone in the chain maintains their “bit”.

You don't know what everyone else has, you know yours and the ones that want to share it with you. Now if you want to change your data bit, you’ll need to convince everyone else in that chain about that… and unless you have a truly justifiable reason, this would be really complex. So data integrity is maintained along the chain… which exactly what we need in a eCDS (electronic Catch Documentation System) to fight IUU fishing

In principle that is what the “blockchain” principle behind “bitcoin” does: is an information system that is shared between many computers and in which new information cannot be removed or changed after it has been written. In real life, it allows any set of parties to agree on some information and be certain that it will still be in the system in the future. They don't need to trust one another, nor do they need to trust a third party. Blockchains do not belong to anyone, however they can be trusted. This little video explains it neatly

The clever people from Provenance (they call themselves a “framework for knowledge”) have run a 6 month trial that was aimed more towards social claims, but does fit nicely into IUU. Their goal was to aid robust proof of compliance to standards at origin and along the chain, prevent the “double-spend” of certificates and explore how these new technologies could form the basis for an open system for traceability powering consumer-facing transparency for food and other physical goods. The pilot was successful in tracking fish and key social claims down the chain to export

The used blockchain technology, along with mobile and smart tags, to track physical products and verified attributes from origin to point of sale (POS). The first system to use blockchain was a peer-to-peer (p2p) payment system that became (in)famous under the name of Bitcoin, Provenance used the same p2p technology to track a tuna fish caught in Maluku, Indonesia from landing to factory and beyond - demonstrating how blockchain technology can enable supply chain transparency and traceability.

Their trial was in Indonesia is the largest tuna-producing country, ideal for assessing opportunities to drastically increase transparency in fish and seafood supply chains. Conducting research and deploying our prototype in the region allowed us to understand the problems, assess technology opportunities and iterate both the design and implementation of our application for building an important part of an impactful and sustainable software system for end-to-end (e2e) traceability.

There is a rallying call from customers, governments, NGOs and businesses towards the end of the supply chain for information about the origin and social standards of fish and seafood products - to prove their compliance to regulation (e.g. no slavery) and voluntary social and environmental standards to warrant premiums or preferential access. To do so, it is also essential to know each link in lengthy supply chains – the chain of custody of a product from capture to customer, which is what we refer to as traceability. With current systems however, effective interoperability of data along the supply chain poses a large technical challenge.

A centralized system, with a governing third party was, until recently, the only conceivable way to achieve data and transaction transparency. The truth is that no single organization can be responsible for making data throughout a whole supply chain transparent. Third parties like NGOs or industry associations, rarely manage even one of these two aspects of transparency, and even if they could, they would become a single point of weakness. This would make them and their operations a vulnerable target for bribery, social engineering, or targeted hacking. Adoption of such a transaction platform among various third parties would add further difficulties, as the shared costs for set-up and operation would be difficult to apportion and agree on, and benefits to each party are not usually made transparent.

What if we could share the same truth between all stakeholders - fishermen, factories, certifiers and consumers, without giving any of them a backdoor to the system?

Blockchains offer precisely this opportunity. This project explored new methods for enabling traceability - a secure flow of information enabling the full chain of custody to be accessed, including key social attributes such as fishing method, vessel type and compliance data.

Building on the blockchain enables a global p2p network to form: an open platform that can deliver neutrality, reliability and security, particularly in grassroots trade.

  • It makes it possible to avoid double-spending of certificates and claims, which is otherwise impossible without a trusted third party
  • It acts as the base layer of truth that everyone throughout the chain can refer to in a trusted way
  • It allows the definition of unbreakable rules called smart contracts that will be enforced by the protocol itself

This project tested their beta chain-of-custody application to estimate and optimize its impact for slavery-free, sustainable practices in the fishing industry. Read more about the technology and its background in their whitepaper.

There are many initiatives big and small (e.g. mFish, Trace Register, ThisFish and many more) looking to digitise data capture along the supply chain but few have presented a convincing approach for making that data truly interoperable without monopoly. Every fisherman, supplier and factory worker we met had a mobile phone. 3G and wifi was patchy but accessible from most of the towns and villages we visited.

As an alternative to current methods, the Provenance application is designed to work through a simple smartphone interface - either through the Provenance application itself or by linking Provenance with existing interfaces and systems for data capture along the supply chain. The application links identity, location, material attributes, certifications and audit information with a specific item or batch ID. The data is stored in an immutable, decentralized, globally-auditable format which protects identities by default, allowing for secure data verification.

Pilot phase 1: Registration and data collection from the "first mile"

Provenance worked with local fishermen from two different supply chains to help them collect catch data and track it through to suppliers. The respective fishermen sent simple SMS messages to register their catch, thus issuing a new asset on the blockchain with each SMS. Accompanied by permanent, unique IDs, the assets were then transferred from fisherman to supplier along with the catch, in both physical transactions and in the digital register on the blockchain. At this point, the items originally owned by the fishermen become linked to the suppliers. The identities of the fishermen are saved forever in the list of previous owners held on the blockchain.

The social and environmental conditions for the fishermen at the point of capture are verified through trusted local NGOs, whose audit systems validate their compliance to an external standard, resulting in their eligibility to participate in the Provenance-validated chain of custody.

 from Provenance webpage

from Provenance webpage

Using a blockchain explorer like allow them to check the raw content of the digital asset that represents the item on the blockchain. It ensures the history and any details about the item have been recorded on the blockchain. The system they built is thus completely standalone and, more than building it on top of the Provenance platform, they rather peg a stakeholder object to a Provenance user in order to take advantage of both.

The 1st mile work like this:

1. Registration of fisherman > 2. Item attribute confirmation > 3. Fisherman issues item (catch) > 4. Fisherman transfers the item to supplier. > 5. Supplier receives the item > 6. Checking item on blockchain explorer.

 Pilot phase 2: Linking the blockchain with existing systems

Many supply chain management systems already exist, although most are expensive, large-scale enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that run on internal hardware or in private cloud environments. These data silos discourage interoperability and open standards, rarely cover a product's full supply chain, and are often unable to capture the first mile from the original source.

 from Provenance webpage

from Provenance webpage


Standards allow unconnected systems to communicate using the same language, structures and identifiers. GS1, for example, manages a closed set of global standards for most supply chain concepts such as barcodes and shipping container codes. There are, however, very few standards for identifying individual instances of products or their history. They are working to develop this as a community-owned, open standard.

A unique ID in their system takes the form of an address on the blockchain (this is where I see my concept of Unloading Authorisation Code fitting in). More than a simple identifier, fetching the data stored at that address on the blockchain allows any entity to access details about that particular item. It is thus interoperable by default – as long as each entity along the chain commits its transaction to the blockchain in some fashion, the platform or system they use to access the blockchain is irrelevant.

 Single Source of Truth

To ensure trust in a system, there should be a single source of truth (SSOT) for each piece of information. They propose that in this system, the blockchain should be the SSOT for verifying an actor’s identity, as well as the validity of any certification or attribute they claim to have. It should also be the SSOT for the full ownership history of each item from first mile to end consumer (i.e. its chain of custody) as well as the validity of any certification or attribute associated with it.

Integration details

1. Accepting items / ingredients / materials

Today, only paper records and tags accompany the sale and purchase of items such as skipjack tuna. By digitising the supply chain at the first mile, these items will be sold along with a digital record. The record will be held on the blockchain, accessible to anyone with the unique identifier attached to the item as a QR Code, RFID tag or using any other hardware technology.

2. Registering new or transformed items

 from Provenance website

from Provenance website

When raw materials are processed and turned into new products, the corresponding assets on the blockchain need to be updated or transformed accordingly. For example, a whole fish whose catch was registered to the blockchain initially will leave the factory in multiple cans, which will each need their subsequent sale tracked separately. They will implement the concept of process as a contract on the blockchain to handle this. To counteract malicious processing, open-source conditions will be defined, publicly enforced by the contract.

Tally-O uses mass balancing to account for the amounts of ingredients used in the transformation. For example, the calculation for a can of Fairtrade skipjack tuna might be 200g of certified skipjack tuna and 10ml of olive oil. The details of this calculation will be sent to the process contract once the transformation has taken place, and the identifier then encoded in a label that will be passed with the transformed product down the chain.

3. Accepting transformed items

Just as inputs were transferred on the blockchain when physically arriving at the factory, outputs are transferred to the next actor in the chain when leaving the facility. Tally-O is connected to scanners that enable shipping management. Scanning labels containing a reference to the digital asset issued at the transformation step triggers the transfer of that asset to the next actor in the chain.

In short, the blockchain provides an audit layer sitting on top of an existing ERP or other data management system - like Tally-O. This allows data to be shared and mass balancing of certified product to be conducted between two separate factories. Even more, it allows that data to be joined with data collected from the first mile in a trustworthy way - providing a true end-to-end record without the need to change existing interfaces to data capture.

Pilot phase 3: The consumer experience and building an interface for trust

The final part of this pilot explored how the information from origin and the supply chain can be reached and trusted by shoppers towards the end of the chain.

To effectively integrate Provenance into physical retail environments, they conducted a workshop and in-store prototyping session with local Brighton supermarket Hisbe Food CIC. The workshop provided significant insights on consumer behavior, influencing ideas for how Provenance technology could best manifest in a supermarket scenario. The resulting strategy: to replace the clutter of traditional printed communication with Provenance online stories and journeys, accessible via in-store tablets and NFC-enabled smart stickers. On the tablets, shoppers can view stories for each product range, seeing the producers and suppliers involved in farming or processing. Through smart stickers and packaging, shoppers can hover their smartphones over a product to track its provenance right on their screens. This system empowers a new era of more conscientious, trusting consumers willing to pay more for products with proven origins.

 from Provenance website

from Provenance website

Key choices and challenges for Provenance: Towards an open registry for material products, their attributes and ownership

Provenance aims to define open traceability standards for the material world. They do not seek to be yet another solution added to the list of data silos. Instead, they strive to build a system from the grassroots that can use existing interfaces and apps wherever possible - simply providing the first layer of shared truth for the material world.

Public vs. private blockchains

Most well-known blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum are public. This means that anyone can join the network without any restriction to read, write or take part in the consensus. Consortium blockchains then emerged to take advantage of the distributed consensus when it comes to maintaining a shared, consistent source of truth within a business process, company or industry at low maintenance cost. They give a controlled number of validators the responsibility to reach a consensus.

We know that building on a consortium blockchain would be an easier path: they are currently more scalable, cheaper to operate and provide better privacy options. But we believe that the incremental complexity of using public chains is worth the effort:

  • Equality: Since anyone can take part, this makes sure we can take consumer input and onboard new stakeholders without changing consensus mechanisms.
  • Consensus: Trust in consortium chains rest on an assumption that the small number of validators involved can not collude. They could still however decide to censor certain information if they share some common interest in doing so. Public chains make that impossible, and so censorship can only happen outside of the chain, leaving the core data untouched.
  • Network effect: We see blockchain as an empowering technology and want to use it in an open way, taking advantage of other projects such as identity frameworks. Learnings from the early days of the internet also weigh in favor of the public approach.
  • Commons: Our goal is to define standards for supply chain data without linking to a proprietary system. We are building a public utility to keep track of our material world.

This task is obviously bigger than them, and one that will have the most impact if it is developed as an open source project. They will welcome industry experts to take part in building the standard and extend our current protocol.

Connecting digital and physical

For this pilot, they linked products to digital assets using QR codes and NFC stickers. 2D barcodes can store the address of a digital asset on the blockchain and can be generated in batches. However, it is easy to copy these tags at any stage of the supply chain, which would undermine the validity of the physical product associated to the blockchain, without indicating it in the digital register. NFC tags can be programmed to store cryptographically secure data - but they aren’t currently practical for use upstream in the supply chain.

They are exploring ways to avoid duplication and identified two main approaches:

  • High tech: advances in NFC technology now enable tags to hold a secret securely. This makes copying advanced NFC tags increasingly difficult and double spending for the item more expensive. Prooftag uses bubbles to generate unique tags that can’t be copied. Other technologies are emerging: for example, « nano spirals » are being engineered using electron-beam lithography and are even harder to clone. These approaches are suited for expensive goods for which authenticity is a critical issue.
  • Low tech: for some low-value products, secure tagging technology might not be necessary. Particularly when the financial incentive to substitute goods is low or the system makes it difficult. If goods are digitally transferred and confirmed as received using a public blockchain it would be impossible to sell the asset twice for a premium for a certain claim. However, this would mean systems would need to be linked to ERP systems and POS systems and customers would need easy methods to also confirm the purchase.

Conclusions and next steps

Provenance envisions a future where any material, ingredient or product can have an identity, life, and history on the internet in a shared, interoperable format.

This project highlighted the grave need for a common backend to support the growth of a new digital ecosystem for traceability - uniting the myriad of initiatives with a shared language and public infrastructure.

 More than an interface

They came across several great projects in the data-collection space including vessel tracking, vessel registration, self-reporting of catch and effort, independent port sampling programs, Fairtrade data capture, fish tagging, internal traceability systems and apps for fishermen and suppliers all happening in the areas we researched in Indonesia. Needless to say data capture was rife both by software and hardware.

Sharing data securely between different parties is a clear barrier for achieving the level of trusted traceability needed to prove slavery-free fish. Currently, the main solution being posed is for one of the traceability providers to gain huge monopoly - this is neither secure, just or sustainable. The atrocities in the fishing supply chain mainly occur at catch, before the final destination of the fish is known. This means an incentive structure and data system would have to be shared by a number of companies to cover the data capture needed - but this must be a system that supports each fisherman as much as it helps the brands that add their names to the packaging.

 A system for the lone fisherman and the gigantic retailer to come together

The blockchain won’t solve traceability alone and indeed much of our pilot was spent looking at how information could even be digitised, let alone shared or secured. However, it does provide an ideal base layer upon which architectures for robust traceability systems can be built and participated in without ownership by the biggest or richest actor. It could also open up a powerful driver within this system - access to a premium payment for a fish that is of known origin and proven to be compliant with standards.

That premium may manifest itself through Market Access, however the sooner we demand and require proven compliance of standards and traceability back to the source for the food we eat, the sooner we can fuel an engine for change.


I’m really interested in this and I’m definitively diving deeper. From my work, I’m interested in the legality and integrity of the value chain in from Harvest to Market. Consumers make their own choicesbased on price, brands and ethics… I just want to make sure that what was caught was legal, and that no IUU fish was laundered along the way.