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Blockchain-traced seafood: Helping historic New England fisheries thrive


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In Massachusetts, we like to think we know our scallops. Barely 15 miles from our headquarters at Raw Seafoods sits the town of New Bedford, where New England fishermen first began using “catboats” to dredge bay scallops in the early 1900s. By the mid 1950s, more than 85 percent of the national scallop catch came through New Bedford.

We also learned the hard way what happens when we take our precious fisheries for granted. By the 1990s, the New England scallop fisheries were all but depleted. Thanks to a series of reforms and the implementation of new technology, the industry banded together and last year’s catch in 2018 was the fifth largest ever recorded. For 18 straight years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ranked New Bedford as the most valuable fishing port in the United States.

Join the IBM Food Trust ecosystem for a smarter, safer, more sustainable food system

The unique history of our fishery has taught us that collaboration can yield dividends where competition cannot, and that the upfront investment required for game-changing innovation can often be a matter of survival. That’s why New England scallopers are now uploading information about their catch to Raw Seafoods with IBM Food Trust, a blockchain-based platform that promotes food traceability, safety, and sustainability. This information will automatically be shared with other members of the scallop supply chain, from processors and distributors to supermarkets and even restaurants.

A digital supply chain for seafood

We first began investigating the potential for blockchain to improve our own processes after observing its role in helping brands respond to e-coli outbreaks that stemmed from leafy greens. While farmed romaine lettuce and sea-caught scallops have little in common, but we soon realized that by digitizing the food supply chain and creating an immutable record of each catch, we could solve a trifecta of the seafood industry’s most pressing problems.

The first is seafood fraud. According to research by the environmental advocacy group Oceana, as many as one in five of the fish samples tested were mislabeled. The troubling implication of that finding is that if you’ve eaten seafood 10 times this summer, as many as two of your meals were not what you thought they were. With IBM Food Trust, we can help bring an end to not knowing what’s really on your dinner plate.

Second, blockchain can bring order and transparency to one of the world’s most complex supply chains. Close to 80 percent of the seafood we eat is either imported out-right, or it has been exported and re-imported for processing. This makes it extremely difficult to determine exactly where a particular shipment of fish or scallops came from. This is no small concern for consumers, who frequently pay a premium for fish sourced in certain locations, from Chilean Seabass to Alaskan King Crab.

Finally, all these factors contribute to what we in the industry call the fear of fish. In part because they’re concerned about food safety and provenance, consumers buy seafood less often, which creates an additional problem: even when consumers do want seafood, they’re unsure of how to prepare it. These three factors can help explain why between 80 and 90 percent of Americans don’t eat the recommended allotment of seafood.

Setting a new industry standard

From provenance to sustainability, blockchain will help seafood processors, suppliers, retailers and even chefs raise the bar for their customers. When a cook at one of our partner restaurants thinks the scallops they bought were a little sandy, for example, he can now call the captain of the boat that caught them and let him know. By connecting the people who buy food with the people who source it, we’re making entirely new forms of collaboration possible.

Particularly important to me, as a Massachusetts native who grew up in the region, we also hope that our new platform can help reward the captains and the fisherman for their efforts. Before blockchain, there was no way to prove that you got your catch onto ice a little faster than your peers, or that you got them into port more quickly. Now, there is, and by putting a spotlight on their work, we’re hoping to ensure that people around the world can taste the scallops that helped put New England on the map.

From time to time, we invite industry thought leaders, academic experts and partners, to share their opinions and insights on current trends in blockchain to the Blockchain Pulse blog. While the opinions in these blog posts are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IBM, this blog strives to welcome all points of view to the conversation.

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