Is blockchain such a silver bullet? / by Francisco Blaha

Lots and lots of talk in the media about the potential of blockchain to solve issues from IUU fishing to forced labour and so on. I personally think that such a hype, typical from media that does not fully grasp the complexities around IUU fishing and forced labour (or even blockchain!) is not really conductive and as any hype, could be detrimental to the cause in the long term.

the tool does not replace the MCS job, it just makes the results transparent and verifiable.

the tool does not replace the MCS job, it just makes the results transparent and verifiable.

I don't like the present hype because it puts too much pressure on one example of very good use of technology, but is not more than that.... IUU and forced labour issues are multifaceted and involve a lot of jurisdictions, socioeconomic and political aspects. Pining the solutions, on one data architecture tool is really unfair and risks hyper-inflating the expectations on what that technology can offer, and then people walking away because it does not deliver on the hype that was built around it. 

There plenty of explanations of what blockchain is, the way I see it is basically a digital ledger that is distributed, decentralised, verifiable and irreversible, so their records can’t be changed once in (but you still have to record it!) is a mechanism that can be used to record transactions of almost anything and where “ownership / responsibility” needs to be accounted for. 

I don't see limitations on the technology (blockchain) but rather on the political will to implement a system based on any technology available. Blockchain just offer some advances over other technologies to set up a Catch Documentation Scheme, which if implemented and set up the right way, involving the full set of MCS tools and catch accountancy requirements at flag, coastal, port, processing and end market states (read this book to know what you need how is to be done ☺) does has the chance to control IUU, but is a system that need to be adopted / imposed / sanctioned along the value chain by RFMOs, witch at the present are toothless tigers, in respect to compliance.

The willingness of any player in the seafood value chain to be part of any system that add transparency is based on the perceived economic benefits arising from its use and/or the fear of regulatory consequences of its "not use" (assuming the government agencies responsible have the mandate, willingness and capacity to enforce the rules)

Which  development tool (block chain, relational databases, etc) to use, is an interesting discussion, but the key point in my view, if "how" the tool is going to be imposed. 

Some players (like the system my friends set up in Fiji) can see the use of such a system as way to make better earnings and position themselves as the ethical operators they are, and see benefits along their customer base. But the company down the road (literally) has a very profitable and established market somewhere else that does not require any form of ethical assurances... so where is their incentive to use the system? (Which as I said is independent of the tool)

Now, if Fiji or any other country was to legislate that such as system is required by law for any trade and exports, that in principle is great... but no doubt will increase costs to the Fijian operators whom in turn would may not be able to recover it from the clients. Since your have other countries that produce the same fish and have not even thought about institutionalising such a transparency tool and they will be more competitive than Fijian producers are.

And here, is for me the key issue, we have not formalised the incentives system by which the ethical and legal operators are rewarded and the non ethical are punished by consumers* and regulators... and that is not going to be changed by any App or traceability tool (Independent of type of programming tool its used) implemented voluntarily by some operators or institutionalised only by some countries, while the competitor operators or countries (or the DWFN fishing on them) do not take part. 

Any flow takes the path of less resistance, fisheries is no different. Until there is a global commitment to value chain transparency tools like Catch Documentation Schemes (based on any technologies) we are just tinkering along the sides, by providing transparency to the value chain of responsible operators (who in reality did not needed them in the first place - otherwise they would have not volunteered to be part of the pilot project) we are showing it is possible, but we are not solving the issue.

Don't get me wrong, is great that systems like the one form my friends in Fiji works along the established value chain they have, because it shows that the system are able to produce results, and I’m sure it would work in another value chains like canned and loined tuna in the Solomons Islands, since they are also well regulated and run by very ethical operators. Yet these operators have never been the problem, is the rest of the sector that needs transparency... and that as any other transnational crime setup needs a combined and global effort, otherwise there would be always backdoors that can be used.

As my friend Gilles Hosch said: “With CDS we have developed a market-based tool to effectively tackle a range of severe forms of IUU fishing. Whether the collective will to adopt and expand these systems exists, is a different matter.”

*The whole argument that the ethical consumer will reward the good practices and transparency with a price plus, maybe real for part of the 29% of the world population the earns more than 10 USD a day, unfortunately my life experience has shown me that "ethics" is a very shifty ground... but then, I have grown up and spent a significant part of my life being part of the 71% that lived below that threshold.