Kat Leigh has always wanted to get involved with ocean conservation. “Always, always, always,” she says. “My mom likes to tell the story about when I was baptized. I was crying before and after, but in the water, I was fine.” Her love for the ocean, and for the sustainable seafood industry in particular, led her to Fishcoin, which will use the Ethereum blockchain to try to increase transparency about how seafood gets from ocean to dinner plate.
The seafood industry is a notoriously complex and problematic. Approximately 90 percent of fish stocks globally are overfished, and one in five pieces of seafood is mislabeled—often intentionally. Environmental and human rights issues abound. “We have one of the craziest supply chains out there,” says Leigh, who is spearheading efforts on a project called FishcoinOA. The “OA” stands for ocean acidification, and it’s a problem about which Leigh is especially passionate. Though the project is still in its early stages, FishcoinOA has a partnership with the Ocean Foundation, and was recently a finalist in the MIT Solve Challenge, which “advances lasting solutions from tech entrepreneurs to address the world’s most pressing problems.” BREAKER spoke with Leigh about the challenges of collecting accurate data, the power of cell phones, and why she’s excited about blockchains.
How does ocean acidification work?
As we’re having a changing environment, lots of things are happening to our oceans and coastlines. One of them is ocean acidification, which is the rapid decline in the ocean’s pH due to CO2 emissions. As you increase the amount of CO2 in the air, CO2 dissolves into the water, and that ends up creating carbonate ions, which then end up creating hydrogen ions, and that ends up resulting in a lower pH. It’s called the carbonate system, and we have a lot of gaps in our knowledge about it. That’s alarming because already ocean acidification is a big problem.
Why is it a problem?
Shellfish farmers are really scrambling to try to deal with the increasing acidity of their waters, and it’s really pronounced in areas of the ocean that tend to be more acidic anyway, [like] coastal upwelling zones in the Pacific Northwest, or along California.
"Ocean acidification is projected to cost the world economy $1 trillion by the end of the century—and that's per year."
Those places tend to be really nutrient-rich. Well, that’s great, except that nutrient-rich water also tends to be very acidic, and so when you then add on ocean acidification to that, you end up with some really acidic conditions that shellfish can’t cope with, because they have hard shells and they need to [make] calcium carbonate.
But we also have other issues. There’s a decent amount in the literature now about how larval stages——juvenile stages of organisms, especially fish—really struggle with acidic conditions. It’ll shift the size of their larva; it will impede their ability to detect healthy places for them to actually grow up into big fish. It’s also destroying coral reefs. We really need to get a grasp on it, because ocean acidification is projected to cost the world economy $1 trillion by the end of the century—and that’s per year.
That’s crazy. Why is it hard to get ocean acidification data?
Most of our theories and models are based on the open ocean, because in the open ocean, you tend to have a much more uniform system. Ocean acidification, because it is a gradual process, is hard to detect—especially in a place that’s full of so much disturbance and other influences, like coasts. You have upwelling, you’ve got currents, rivers, wind patterns—all of those things can affect what’s going on in the ocean chemistry. … If you think about it, this is why we plant trees; they influence the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Well, the same thing can happen in water with plants there and other organisms. So we need more coastal data and FishCoinOA is going to be focusing on collecting [it].
The other thing is costs associated with ocean acidification research. It’s really expensive, because sensors that we’re using have to be very accurate because it’s such a subtle change that we’re trying to detect. Your pH test strips that you use for a pool, those look at pH [differences of] like one or two units, which—pH is on a log scale—is huge. I’ve been contacting a lot of tech companies. By combining their different technologies, we think we can get the cost exponentially less than what it is right now.
How will you collect data?
The idea is that these small sensors—they’re not going to take up more than a foot, really, probably less—are stuck on a boat and take readings continuously. And a connection is going to be sending data from the sensor to [fishers’] phones. The other cool thing about this is that we can get GPS data, to know where all these readings are coming from. And we don’t need a separate GPS installed in our sensors, because cell phones have GPS.
So all of that information can get uploaded together with a timestamp, whenever there’s a stable connection. And then in exchange for providing this data and cooperating with things like maintenance checks, the fishers receive Fishcoin tokens. So their activities and their data generation is being rewarded, because that is something of value.
What can they redeem these tokens for?
They can exchange them for top-up credits on prepaid mobile plans. Fishcoin has a relationship with TransferTo, as well as GSMA. GSMA basically represents the telecommunications industry and these telcos have agreed to allow Fishcoin tokens to have value for their data plans, which is super exciting. Connectivity is one of the most valuable things we have, especially when you’re in a developing area. Access to communication is huge.
So from the telecom provider’s perspective, is this a charity thing?
It’s not really. What it actually is, is the shifting of benefits in this industry. Fishcoin tokens have value and so… whoever is making use of catch data, origin, provenance information, they’re the ones that have to pay Fishcoin tokens to the data producer. Eventually those tokens get to the fishers, and then the fishers give those to telcos. So really, what’s happening is that you have whoever [is the] data demander basically helping to defray the cost of a fisher’s cell phone bill. And then for the telcos, it’s a threshold situation. … There are some fishers that wouldn’t be able to make use of their services at all, because they can’t afford it. But if you can give them a little bit of help, then they get to be able to use their services. I can’t speak for them and say that that is exactly the reasoning, but the logic makes sense.
Why is using a blockchain necessary?
Blockchain makes trust possible. … No one person can lie or change what they’ve done, because the group as a whole has record of what’s happened in the past. It’s immutable. That is critical for an opaque industry where everything is secret, and traceability is a mess. The other thing about it is that blockchain, even with that data in the open, allows for access permission. So you can you grant access to that data to certain individuals. If I want to then allow others to see it, I get to selectively choose and take ownership of my information. And that allows for a transfer of value to take place. That’s where having a Fishcoin token becomes really cool. You can use something that’s actually built into how blockchain functions, which is this token, to allow an exchange of value.
When I got exposed to blockchain, I was like, ‘Wow, we could shift the economic structure if we do this right. Oh my goodness, this is cool.’ And in a very sunshine-y way, I guess, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s try to find a way to do this.’
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photos courtesy FishcoinOA.