Post-pandemic seafood could be more sustainable. Here’s how tech is driving the change.

In Guaymas, Mexico, one savvy fishing co-op shows how apps, QR codes, and other transparent add-ons could deliver a more healthy, equitable future for the industry.
fisherman holding a rope on a boat

A fisherman drops anchor at the first stop in a long night. Tom Fowlks

Workdays can begin hours before dawn in Guaymas, Mexico, where a small cohort of locals launch modest fiberglass-and-wood boats from the rocky shore into waters that will gleam azure at sunrise. From their pangas, crafts about 20 feet long with little more than three bench seats and an outboard motor, the 38 members of the Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Pesquera 29 de Agosto SCL cast baited hooks on longlines and pull in yellowtail, grouper, or snapper by hand. On most outings, each boat can catch as much as 220 pounds before it returns to dock in the afternoon.

Some 75 years ago, co-op president Andrés Grajeda Coronado’s great-grandfather, Celso Grajeda, handled his catch the same way. “He used the same as we do: a line and a hook,” says Coronado. A statue of Celso, one of Guaymas’ first fishermen, overlooks the town. Today, the city is the most productive seafood-producing community of the dozens that dot the Gulf of California, the strip of water separating the Baja peninsula from mainland Mexico, where thousands of laborers deliver fish from the ocean to cities.

In Celso’s day, he was one of only a few men selling catches directly to consumers on the docks, but today, a generation of artisanal workers often find themselves tangled at the bottom of a vast global supply chain. Ninety percent of the world’s 35 million fishermen operate on a small scale—with millions in remote, rural areas—yet they produce more than half of the global catch and a similar share of what hits their countries’ export markets. Many live hand to mouth, dependent on a string of middlemen to keep 91 million tons of perishable wild-caught fish cold, processed, and distributed to restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets.

On many remote docks, a single buyer sets the price, or a few collude to keep fishermen from demanding higher rates. And all the shuffling between parties from there onward provides ample opportunity for misconduct. Catches that are illegal, unreported, or unregulated (known in the trade as IUU) account for one of every five fish reeled in, injecting $23.5 billion worth of effectively stolen seafood into the market, according to Global Fishing Watch, an international nonprofit that uses satellites, infrared, and radar imagery to detect IUU. Such losses jeopardize food security for over 3 billion people and the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen.

seafood market outside the major fishing port of Guaymas, Mexico
A seafood market, or pescaderia, in a small town outside the major fishing port of Guaymas, Mexico. Tom Fowlks

To maintain incomes, they do whatever they can to catch more. In Guaymas, a majority use gill nets, which trap swimmers by the gills in webbing—to devastating consequence. A 2016 assessment of 121 Gulf of California fisheries stocks by researchers at several entities, including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, estimates that 69 percent have collapsed and another 11 percent are overexploited. Such indiscriminate methods also lead to losses of other species, notably the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise. There may be no more than 10 of them left.

That’s in normal times. When COVID-19 shut down most of the world in March 2020, it unleashed an economic tsunami on the $150 billion global seafood market. The shuttering of restaurants, where nearly 70 percent of catches ended up before the pandemic, dried up demand for high-end chef favorites such as lobster, abalone, and squid—as well as everyday fare like Guaymas’ yellowtail and grouper.

The global movement of fresh fish—the most traded food commodity in the world—has been sputtering ever since. The coronavirus is an “unparalleled” disruption, says Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the US agency tasked with monitoring marine resources. “It is so comprehensive in scale and scope and so long in duration that it is going to have profound effects on seafood supply chains globally, in ways we don’t entirely understand yet.” The interruption has undoubtedly complicated efforts to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal to end overfishing, illegal catches, and destructive practices by the end of 2020.

Amid the chaos, though, many see an opportunity to reshape seafood sales in ways that bolster adoption of more sustainable methods and create a more equitable future for fishermen like those in Coronado’s co-op. That starts with helping the little guys benefit from supplying the best of their goods to a growing market of home cooks and eco-conscious retailers. The secret weapon is transparency: the ability for the end consumer, and industry monitors, to verify the how, where, and by whom of each snapper, salmon, or shrimp.

[Related: Your supermarket salmon is probably stealing somebody’s food]

Over the past few years, nonprofits, government agencies, and industry collectives have begun steady development of projects to rebuild depleted fish stocks, often by enlisting locals in managing catches. In addition, efforts are underway to test and adopt traceability technologies such as RFID chips, QR tags, and blockchain coding to carry information about a specific fish from hook to cook.

The fact that Coronado’s cooperative had always caught by ethical means attracted SmartFish, a La Paz, Mexico, company focused on championing sustainable fishing in the region. The organization’s nonprofit arm helps workers transition to eco-friendly practices, while its for-profit business sells their goods directly to high-end restaurants and the public.

When asked what his ancestor would think of a QR code slapped on a frozen hunk of yellowtail or snapper bound for California, Coronado’s serious demeanor suddenly erupts into a chuckle. “Are you crazy?” he quips, mimicking Celso’s imagined reaction. In his mid-50s with jet-black hair, Coronado is younger than most of his graying co-op members. With very few of their children interested in carrying on the family business, he knows that if something doesn’t change soon, there will be nothing but gill nets—and dangerously dwindling stock—left.

Fishing co-op president ­Andrés Grajeda Coronado
Fishing co-op president ­Andrés Grajeda Coronado. Tom Fowlks

Before the co-op joined SmartFish in 2019, Coronado dealt with at least two middlemen—one in Tijuana and one in California—who bought the group’s catch. He knew the goods would shuffle about a lot before reaching a shelf or plate, but a fisherman’s main concern is simply moving stock off the dock.

The Byzantine global distribution of seafood resembles a bizarre game of cold potato: Unable to hold their catches on ice indefinitely, fishermen are beholden to third parties who can wait for ideal market conditions to unload inventory. While distributors can stockpile frozen supplies of mahi-mahi for months or even years, folks like Coronado must often accept low prices simply to unload their perishables. Some 27 percent of fish gets lost, discarded, or wasted before it can reach the consumer, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In Mexico, some “fishers catch high-quality wild seafood, but with poor handling, it turns into sunbaked rotten mash,” says Cecilia Blasco, executive director of SmartFish, which partners with five cooperatives around the Baja peninsula.

Blasco estimates that in a conventional supply chain, up to 12 different parties might touch a yellowtail on its way to the consumer from Guaymas. Typically, fishermen offload their catch to a local entrepreneur, who takes it to the closest town and sells it to a small aggregator; from there, buyers from larger markets in Mexico City or Guadalajara purchase high-value species—all before the goods reach a distributor or exporter. Buyers at every stage command a cut, and those doing the actual fishing in western Mexico usually receive only 18–20 percent of the final price.

Shady practices on larger vessels further disadvantage the little guys. One of the most common schemes: Refrigerated cargo vessels, called “reefers,” stay in international waters, which allows them to circumvent regulations if, say, they aggregate legal and illegal fare from multiple smaller crafts. (The practice is most prevalent off the coasts of Russia and West Africa and in the South Indian Ocean and the equatorial Pacific Ocean.) In effect, they’re laundering the catch.

Because all fish looks more or less the same once it reaches the shelf, it’s easy to hide ill-gotten goods. Even a fillet marked “wild caught” at the grocer might not be what it seems. A 2019 report from nonprofit conservation organization Oceana DNA tested more than 400 samples from 250 stores across the US and found that 20 percent of labels misidentified things like species and origin. Worse yet, a 2015 investigation by the Associated Press revealed that some fish on Walmart and Kroger shelves had been caught by forced labor.

A fishing town nestled in the mountains
A fishing town nestled in the mountains. Tom Fowlks

COVID-19 only exacerbated the chance of unsavory activity. Typically, governments require independent observers to ride on vessels and verify crew are complying with regulations that stipulate the amount, size, sex, and species of the seafood. To avoid transmission of the virus on cramped crafts, however, many lifted the mandate. Without the usual eyes and ears on the water, it can be even easier for illicit catches to take place, says Global Fishing Watch CEO Tony Long. It’s unclear when observers will resume their duties.

Amid all this, the pressure to adopt traceability technologies is growing. Large, risk-averse retailers like Walmart and Kroger have, in the years since the forced labor revelations, begun adopting increasingly stringent sustainability requirements. “Some distributors who sold to restaurants are now trying to pivot to retail,” says Teresa Ish, senior program officer of the Walton Family Foundation’s environment initiative. The shift creates a tremendous opportunity for change. And it only increases the appeal of projects like SmartFish, which are intended not only to shorten the supply chain but also to demonstrate that consumers show more interest in fish that comes with a story attached.

For their part, home cooks have bolstered retail demand during the pandemic. Amateur chefs have historically avoided buying fresh fish because they don’t know how to prepare it, says Martin Exel, managing director of Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship, a collective of 10 of the world’s top seafood companies as well as academics. “It’s had a stigma,” he explains.

[Related: Stone Age farming practices are making a comeback in the age of climate change]

With time on their hands, however, consumers are getting more adventurous with their home-dining options. In Maine, for example, a group of fishermen who’ve adopted sushi-grade handling techniques have been able to secure high-enough prices to sell pollock and monkfish domestically instead of exporting it. Niceland Seafoods, a company that specializes in Icelandic imports, sold out of a shipment of wolffish (it’s kind of like catfish) in a Denver supermarket in four days. And frozen sales surged more than 50 percent around the beginning of COVID lockdown, according to industry publication Seafood Source.

It’s too soon to tell if armchair gourmands can absorb a significant amount of the supply that used to go to restaurants. Changing Tastes, a culinary consultancy, predicts that two-thirds of sit-down, full-service eateries will not reopen after the pandemic. But with both supermarkets and consumers showing a new appetite for fish—and for insight into the provenance of what they’re buying—Coronado and his group are well positioned to meet demand, and to do so at premium prices.

A fisherman pulls in a rockfish on a boat
A fisherman pulls in a rockfish by moonlight near Guaymas, Mexico. Tom Fowlks

Aboard his blue-and-white panga, Guaymas co-op member José Francisco Mendizábal follows a new routine after he lands a grouper or yellowtail. He plunges a knife into the top of its skull, bleeds it, then places it in an ice-water bath—steps that help preserve flavor and texture. On shore, he scrubs down his vessel while SmartFish processors fillet and freeze the catch. By comparison, a gill-net fisherman outside the co-op would dump seafood in the bottom of a boat, leaving it to decay in the sun until it reached shore. Mendizábal’s methods may be time consuming and leave him with less yield, he says, but it’s worth it: Working with SmartFish will net the co-op 50 percent of the final price, more than double what they made before. The system, says Coronado, rewards them for their skills.

When COVID-19 first hit, demand for fresh fish from Guaymas plummeted, and the only commercial link left was SmartFish. The organization packages the co-op’s goods with a QR label pointing to details about where it was caught, by whom, and how. A Mexico City store sells the frozen, vacuum-sealed product and manages exports to the US, its yellowtail bound for San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Sales jumped by 30 percent between March and May 2020.

SmartFish’s work in Guaymas is not an isolated example. Other communities have found a lifeline during the pandemic by using technology to replace disrupted supply chains. In South Africa, a smartphone app called Abalobi, developed by the University of Cape Town, has helped fishermen sell lobster directly to restaurants that have remained open. In addition to securing higher prices, they also record their catches—and therefore provide data that will help improve fisheries management. Future of Fish, a nonprofit that supports small-scale sea harvesters, jumped in to help Chileans build online markets to sell their hake, and it will soon test the Abalobi app there as well.

As their reach grows, technologies that shine light on the sources of seafood are sure to be good for both bottom lines and fisheries. Consider, for example, the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration—signed in 2017 by the biggest retailers, processors, marketers, traders, and harvesters—specifying that, to curb overfishing, companies must make all products fully traceable to the vessel and date on which they were caught and comply with government-mandated reporting. Since the effort began, the market for responsibly sourced tuna has doubled, and the proportion of sustainable tuna stocks has rebounded from a 2014 low of 14 percent to 28 percent.

“Traceability is critical to our ability to manage for resilience,” says Mark Zimring, director of the Large Scale Fisheries Program at the Nature Conservancy, which helps manage a group of ocean-roaming species that transcend national jurisdictions. “Two-thirds of global fisheries are overfished,” he says.

Emerging technologies offer opportunities for retailers as well as oversight bodies to monitor what’s happening. Conservationists are calling for onboard cameras equipped with artificial intelligence that can distinguish the weight and length of fish, as a replacement for absent human monitors. The European Union mandates the use of both electronic reporting and satellite tracking on vessels longer than 12 meters (39.4 feet) so government regulators can better keep an eye on populations.

fish being dumped onto ice
The previous night’s catch gets put on ice. Tom Fowlks

In the Gulf of Mexico, Del Pacifico, a wholesaler of shrimp certified as fair trade, equips its boats with a solar-powered tracker from a company called Pelagic Data Systems. Each device monitors the craft’s movements via satellite; prospective customers can then enter a lot ID number to confirm, for instance, shrimpers were not in waters where endangered porpoises reside. Del Pacifico works with 1,500 stores, primarily in the United States—and retail has grown enough during the pandemic to cover the 25 percent of stock it would normally sell to restaurants. “Traceability helped us get more clients, and more high-end clients,” says founder and CEO Sergio Castro.

A growing number of efforts are joining the ranks of Del Pacifico in assuring consumers that fish are properly handled once they leave the water. Niceland Seafoods weaves sensor-equipped RFID tags into packaging to track temperatures. In New Zealand, the World Wildlife Fund has developed a blockchain-based system to embed information on the movement of wild-caught tuna on tags and link the data to a QR code.

Still, adoption can be slow. Some fishermen may be reluctant to embrace public tracking of their vessels out of fear it might tip competitors to closely guarded information, like, say, their favorite hotspots. Yet others find valuable upsides. In Peru, mahi-mahi and squid harvesters are using a World Wildlife Fund–backed smartphone app to create historical records of their performance, which will allow them to claim their fair share of the catch should the government impose quotas—as happened with anchovies, one of the biggest natural stocks in the world.

Ultimately, digital oversight could rein in what is essentially a Wild West offshore. A 2019 study in the journal Fish and Fisheries surveyed 100 electronic monitoring trials and 12 fully implemented programs, such as those in the EU, and found that the devices were cost-effective, offered better coverage of a fleet than human observers, and generated more data on the amount and specific location of fishing activity.

Helping the people on the boats adopt transparent, sustainable methods yields a fruitful synergy: more swimmers in the ocean, more cash in locals’ pockets, and better seafood on dining tables. Coronado, for one, takes pride in maintaining the heritage practices his co-op has used for decades, and sees COVID-19 as a window of opportunity to expand traceability—and with it, their business. Without those kinds of changes, the fourth-generation fisherman worries there won’t be a fifth to carry on the tradition. “We have to prove to people that working the way we do, it’s possible to support a family,” he says. “That it’s possible to live.”

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transformation issue of Popular Science.