Going for a sea change 

ThisFish lets you see who caught your fish and where

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We all pretty much try to make a difference — a positive difference, right? Leave the world a better place than when we came into it. Think about those next seven, eight or nine generations when we make choices, shopping and otherwise.

Then once in a while a good idea comes down the pike that can really help us do the right thing.

If I can quote my favourite detective, Hercule Poirot, something called ThisFish recently got my little grey cells going. It has great potential to break through at least some aspects of our business-as-usual fish world and kick-start some much needed change. Fingers crossed it "catches on."

Nothing fishy about ThisFish

If your little grey cells can reach back to May 2012, they might call up a feature I wrote for Pique called "Shopping our way to something better." It's all about my dream for clear, standardized labelling on everything we purchase so we can make better choices as consumers.

Not saying our choices would be consistent, but at least we'd all be better equipped to buy the apples or roller skis or cheese sticks we want that would better align with our goals to be a little more responsible.

The catalyst for that article was the explosion and fire at a Chengdu factory owned by Apple's partner, Foxconn. There, 120,000 workers kept the assembly lines rolling 24/7 making maybe US$22 for each 12-hour shift they worked to bring you and me our latest i-things. Dozens were killed and injured in the blast, and no one knew if their i-thing came from that factory.

My big dream back in 2012 was for an appealing, easy-to-understand, sliding scale rating system, both on the environmental and social side, for the resource footprint of every product or service we buy. It still is, since we've barely inched toward it. Par exemple, in Canada we've been talking about GMO labelling for ages but haven't seen a milligram of change.

So hold on to your hats, or at least your fish platters, because Vancouver-based, not-for-profit conservation group EcoTrust Canada has launched a program that could really make a difference in helping us make better seafood choices.

Some facts to "lure" you in: Did you know there are only about 55,000 bluefin tuna left in the whole wide world? (So why would anyone eat bluefin tuna sushi any more?) We'd fished them down by 96 per cent shortly after my article above came out, making them pretty much functionally extinct.

Another tidbit: We've also pretty much fished out 98 per cent of all the bigger oceanic fish stocks in the world.

Or how about this one: Seafood fraud is rampant. Between 2010 and 2012 conservation group Oceana collected 1,200 seafood samples from nearly 700 seafood outlets in 21 U.S. states. A third of the products weren't what the labels said they were. Highest on the fraud list at 87 and 59 per cent respectively were red snapper and tuna.

Of the 120 "snapper" samples tested, only seven were actually red snapper! If it ain't tuna or snapper I wonder what the heck it is, was, could be in the future as we fish down our stocks...

So how could any of us say no to a program that will connect us to exactly where our fish has come from and how it got to our plate, whether you're a consumer like me, a chef running a restaurant, or a manager responsible for a grocery or seafood store?

Called ThisFish, it has a couple of components. One part already out in the real world and getting a good reception is ThisFish canned sockeye salmon, which is caught in Barkley Sound and processed at St. Jean's Cannery in Nanaimo.

ThisFish canned sockeye is fully traceable and meets Ocean Wise standards, but the big deal is you'll find the name and photo of the fisher who harvested your fish right on the label. You can even send them a thank you note for the beautiful result. If you're a retailer, all you have to do to stock the product is contact Natalie Hunter, who is key to ThisFish and lives in Squamish, at Natalie@thisfish.info. How local is that?

But the main component of ThisFish is the traceability program that lets everyone know their fish or seafood has met certain rigorous standards to get to your dinner plate, something you might be familiar with in other systems known as "chain of custody" management. Think of it as trust-plus because you and I can actually verify who did what where, and how they did it, whatever we're buying — one condition described in that article of mine as a key to dream labelling.

ThisFish starts, or ends, depending on your view, with a QR (quick response) code on the label of your canned salmon or one day, if we're smart enough, on packages of fish and seafood at your favourite fish counter. For now, it's more likely you'll find it on a restaurant menu, as restos have been the first to offer ThisFish products.

Fishers who are part of ThisFish attach a tag with a code to their harvest, whether it's salmon, lobsters, halibut, spot prawns or whatever. About 30 fishers working B.C.'s waters alone are already registered, selling everything from sablefish to ling cod. Worldwide, about 750 vessels fishing some 50 different species are registered, including boats in Newfoundland, New England, Iceland and Indonesia.

Once the code is attached to a catch, each oyster or prawn or halibut steak can be tracked from the fishing boat to the processor and so on, right through to the retailer, whether it's your favourite restaurant, fish and chips stand, or store.

Consumers don't need to buy an app or anything to scan a ThisFish QR and learn their fish's provenance. It's 100 per cent free and accessible to any smartphone, says Natalie. Or you can go to thisfish.info and type in the alphanumeric code on the label or menu.

"All the QR codes work and they bring you to the unique web page that provides you with all the traceability information for the seafood that you're eating," she adds.

Sounds like one cool tool to me.

But, as usual, to make it work it's going to take some thought leaders, like you and me. Most of us don't own stores or restaurants, so it's up to us — we, the fine, fish-loving people — to start asking for it. Nicely. Politely. Consistently. But ask away, and see if we can make a sea change.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who hopes you mark Ocean Day all year long.


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