Out at sea but not out of touch: Can technology make seafood traceable?

Fishermen are often cut off from land for weeks out at sea. But a new technology enables them to be connected with loved ones, while boosting the traceability of their catch.

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Could technology that enables fishermen to stay connected while at sea bring an end to human rights and fishing violations in the seafood industry?

Fleet One, a technology that enables voice and data connectivity via satellite, was developed by British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat in 2014. It was installed in selected Thai fishing vessels in 2016 in a bid to boost the traceability of the business.

Two years after its pilot run, fishermen report of life-changing benefits: They no longer wonder what is going on at home, and they are also able to report what’s happening at sea.

Thai ship captain Sutatorn Inthachot said that before Fleet One they used a short-distance radio to communicate with those on land, but this meant being cut off for most of their expedition. A typical voyage normally lasts up to 25 days.

“A problem we have using conventional radio when we communicate with the pier is that we’re a long way away, so the signal is often weak,” he said.

The lack of a means to supervise activities and conditions at sea has led to human rights abuses and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in recent years.

The Fleet One installations are part of a shared initiative between Thai canned seafood manufacturer and exporter Thai Union, and the pet food arm of US consumer goods giant Mars. The companies implemented Fleet One alongside a coalition of industry and government groups to boost human rights and sustainability in the seafood industry.

Isabelle Aelvoet, Mars Petcare’s global sustainability director, said their company’s commitment to sustainability includes increasing the opportunity for workers and people in local communities to thrive. “This initiative sets a new standard from an environmental and social perspective for the seafood supply chain,” she said.

Inmarsat’s Fleet One terminals produce instant and accurate electronic data such as size, location and time of catch, to real time information about crew numbers, working hours and conditions.

It also features a mobile phone chat application called “Fish Talk” which fishermen can use to communicate with loved ones back home.

Thai Union’s global director for sustainaibility Darian McBain said the pilot project has the potential to improve traceability and transparency in Thai waters, and the wider fishing industry.

“Many issues we are finding in Thailand replicate themselves in other fishing communities around the world,” she said.

Mars Petcare and Thai Union launched a video about how Fleet One works and the ambitions behind the project.

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