PNA joins the blockchain scene

There was a flurry of messages and emails to me preempting the Parties to the Nauru Agreement’s (PNA) announcement at the SeaWeb Sustainable Seafood Summit in Barcelona that they were going to launch a blockchain solution by end of July 2018. People wanted to know if I was involved somehow since I’ve been active in the blockchain scene in the Pacific, and to some degree internationally, for almost a year now and also founded my own blockchain-enabled traceability startup, TraSeable Solutions Pte Ltd.

To put this in context, when it comes to tuna fisheries anything the PNA does is almost always big news and they have been leaders in the application of technology in Pacific fisheries so it isn’t a surprise that they are getting in on the blockchain action.  It was inevitable given the global hype around the technology and I had been privy to some behind the scenes talk about PNA and blockchain.

I’ll use this post to provide some commentary on the PNA’s announcement and give some insight into how (I think) they may be using the blockchain.

What we know so far

Not a lot given the brief press release.

PNA
PNA member countries (Source: www.franciscoblaha.info)

The PNA consists of 8 member countries that include the Federated States of Micronesia,  Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.  It operates in what is a largely purse-seine fishery and Pacifical is their global marketing company.

PNA controls around 50% of the global supply of skipjack tuna, the most commonly canned tuna.

From the press release:

Maurice Brownjohn, Commercial Manager of the PNA Office, announced that Pacifical will launch the platform in cooperation with Atato, a Thailand-based blockchain service provider. Powered by Ethereum’s blockchain smart contracts and IPFS decentralized storage, integrating with Pacifical’s traceability solutions.

We learn that Pacifical is partnering with Atato, a little-known Thailand-based blockchain and IT service provider.  This makes sense since a lot of the PNA caught fish end up in Thailand for processing and so having a Thailand-based technology provider will make it easier to implement the technology in the processing factories there and also for their distribution channels.

I actually knew who Atato were through email correspondence and a Skype call with them over the last two months or so.  In fact, I’ll be talking to them later today (Friday) over Skype to catch up on what each of us are doing.  Since getting involved in the seafood traceability space in 2017 I’ve found it useful to speak to folks from different traceability (or supply chain) technology providers especially those who work with blockchain technology, which is a very small group right now.  Right now I’m also talking to another blockchain seafood traceability startup out of Norway who contacted us to see if we could collaborate.

More from the press release:

The system will cover the entire supply chain and chain of custody of about 35 million tuna fish caught annually in an area with a surface 40% bigger than Europe. More than 200 million consumer units of Pacifical tuna per year in over 23 countries can soon be traced and verified through the Ethereum blockchain. Environmental groups, retailers, consumers, and certifications bodies all over the world will be able to verify live on Ethereum’s public blockchain exactly how their sustainable Pacifical tuna was caught, by which captain, vessel, area and period, as well as where and when it was processed.

This new innovative blockchain integration powered by Atato blockchain services will cover over 100 large fishing vessels, and will provide an unprecedented level of transparency and traceability, to build the highest level of trust on the sustainability of the catch. All products carrying the Pacifical and MSC logo, will be able to be traced on the blockchain through their unique tracking code. The information will be collected from linking all information sources within the global tuna supply chain from the fishing boat through the production process up to the final point of sale.

We learn that the Pacifical products will have some type of code on their products that consumers will be able to use to verify and view the provenance information of that product back to the vessel (Captain, vessel information, etc) and catch details (area, period, etc).

From the press release the most interesting thing for me was this statement:

More than 200 million consumer units of Pacifical tuna per year in over 23 countries can soon be traced and verified through the Ethereum blockchain.

The sheer volume of consumer units that will supposedly be tracked on the Ethereum blockchain and the public Ethereum blockchain no less is in itself quite ambitious.  I’d imagine that these are largely canned tuna products and so we may not actually be talking about 200 million individual consumer units considering that you can probably get several cans of tuna from one fish which means that several consumer units (cans of tuna, etc) may have the same unique code relating it back to a fish caught by a vessel on a particular fishing trip.

Noting that this is catch from the purse seine fishery we’re not talking about tracking of fish down to the individual fish but possibly tracking to the set level or even the fish hold/well level but at the very least to the vessel level.  So you could end up with several thousand tuna caught by a purse seine fishing vessel on a fishing trip that could end up with the same unique code.

So, in my view, the actual number of unique records that end up on the Ethereum blockchain to track all those consumer products will likely be significantly less than the 200 million consumer units produced.

[Don’t know what purse seine fishing is?  Watch this YouTube video on purse seine fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO)]

Is any of the above novel and how can they do that?

No, it isn’t really novel but a smart use of their investments in their data systems.

The PNA have been leaders in using Management Information Systems (MIS) to manage their fishery from management of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), tracking assets like fishing vessels, using near real-time data collection by observers and approved vessels, etc.  They have been doing this for the better part of the last decade and have improved their capabilities over time so there is already pretty good fisheries data collection happening to support traceability.

The use of codes on consumer products to direct the buyer to information on that product, whether its related to traceability or just product branding, has been around for a while now and is becoming more prevalent through the use of Quick Response (QR) codes and Near-Field Communication (NFC) tags/stickers on products.  ThisFish use them, Provenance Project use them, and so do we at TraSeable.

What do we know about the blockchain solution?

On the blockchain side we learn that they will use the public Ethereum blockchain and will also incorporate InterPlanetary File System (IPFS).  These are pretty standard for a blockchain solution in these early days of the technology.  Ethereum appears to have the largest developer community where many DApps (decentralized apps) are being built to leverage the platforms smart contract capabilities so it makes sense that these are the technologies chosen.  IPFS is a decentralized file storage protocol platform – essentially a peer-to-peer (p2p) file storage platform.

Did Atato and PNA build their own DApp?

Maybe, but given the timeframe considering that they started collaborating in 2018 I think it very unlikely – I would be pleasantly surprised if they did build something together.

What is more likely happening is that the PNA/Pacifical will use Atato’s Blockchain Notary product to get transaction data from PNA’s MIS onto the blockchain.  This is probably the fastest way to get a blockchain solution without having to build it from scratch.  Their press release also hints at this when they mention “… blockchain integration powered by Atato …

Taken from Atato’s Blockhain Notary product page:

Blockchain Notary

Designed to seamlessly connect with your existing IT system and software, Notary is an API based application that enables Blockchain storage and retrieaval of files, information, and metadata.

Built on Ethereum and IPFS, Atato Blockchain Notary allows you to securely interface your application with blockchain networks, and benefit from the improved traceability, audit-ability and reliability of blockchains.

This is a service you could use to record key data and/or transactions from your own systems onto the blockchain and have the additional value of those records being timestamped, have confirmed ownership of that record on the blockchain, and allow for it to be verified by others on the public blockchain.

But what it doesn’t do is actually verify that the data going onto the blockchain is correct.  This is a challenge that many in the blockchain space are grappling with.  The blockchain record is only as good as the data that’s being recorded.  Actual verification of the data can be done by authorities in the respective coastal and port states where fishing occurred and the fish was landed.  There is no mention in the press release that this solution will incorporate these authorities.

So, how I think the PNA’s blockchain solution works is that not much will change from what they do now.  Perhaps they may introduce a unique product identifier on their products which I suspect already exists in their database.  They will continue to capture data on their MIS platform along the different points of their supply chain starting from harvesting on their registered fishing vessels through to processing and then on to the market.  Select transactions or Key Data Elements (KDE) from all the data they are capturing will use Atato’s Notary Application Programming Interface (API) to record those transactions and/or KDE’s in the Ethereum blockchain thus creating an immutable trail of data showing provenance.

Overview+Generic
How Atato’s Blockchain Notary product works (Source: https://www.atato.com/products/)

The tricky part in their supply chain is probably post-processing when the products leave for their destination markets and are distributed to retail outlets. From all accounts Pacifical have a well defined supply chain i.e. they know all the product/data exchange points from harvest to retail and are likely to choose a well defined one to show the value of this blockchain solution.

Can the PNA/Pacifical show provenance without using blockchain?

Well, yes they should be able to by utilising their existing centralised MIS platform since they may already be capturing most, if not all, the key data along their seafood supply chains.

So it begs the question, how does blockchain in this case add value to what the PNA/Pacifical is already doing?

That isn’t very clear (to me at least).

Decentralised systems and blockchain technology are touted as a game changer in supply chains because it promises to provide system-wide (Global) transparency and traceability with different actors along the supply chain having the ability to independently verify the provenance of a product.  While this can be done with centralised systems the challenge with that is whether you can really trust an organisation that has absolute control over that centralised system (and the data that goes into it) in the first place.

For supply chains that are well defined and for companies that are vertically integrated that control all points of their supply chain a blockchain solution, in my view, does not really add a lot of value especially if you’re not doing anything new or novel with it.  Where decentralisation and the use of blockchain technology makes sense is when the supply chain is not well defined, products are going through multiple relatively unknown actors with varying degrees of trustworthiness, and resource producers don’t know what happens to their products up the chain.  If you’ve been reading about blockchain and supply chains for as long as I have, this is what many people in the supply chain space consider as the “Holy Grail“.

So, what does this really mean?

PNA’s entry into the blockchain scene is great news because it will push further efforts and research into the adoption of blockchain technology in the Pacific and in global fisheries.  In the Pacific alone, PNA joins us at TraSeable in using blockchain technology for seafood traceability and recently the Pacific Community (SPC) tendered for the development of a blockchain prototype app for fisheries.  We should also start seeing blockchain technology creeping into discussions at fisheries meetings in the Pacific region.  There are many possible use cases for it in regional fisheries and many other industries and this announcement will stir up that interest in the Pacific.

You many also be wondering what this means for us at TraSeable.

While it may seem daunting that such an organisation like the PNA is entering this space we embrace this announcement and welcome the PNA in joining us as pioneers in the use of blockchain technology for fisheries in the Pacific.  There is more than enough room for everyone to work in and we certainly hope to collaborate on furthering the development of traceability standards taking into consideration technologies like blockchain while also pushing for its adoption.

TraSeable offers a unique value proposition to seafood traceability and we are embracing the decentralised future which we believe is coming.  We also want to see that our people are at the front lines of ideating, designing, building, and applying these technologies.  2018 will be an exciting year when we start to see the growth of a budding community of blockchain developers in the Pacific and we are excited to be leading that growth.

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