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For generations Maine's fishermen have used nature — both their own internal sense of navigation and measurements like water temperature — to find rich fishing grounds. But with increasing competition, broader distribution, more government regulations and a desire by customers to trace food sources, the seafood industry is turning to technology to help automate tasks from the boat through the dock, processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and onto the consumer's plate.
“Boat to Plate” is one such nascent effort by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association and other collaborators. The goal is within a few years to create a database including the boat, fisherman, catch, distribution and other information so the seafood can be traced if there's a food safety issue, and so consumers can download an app to learn about the fish on their plate using a QR or quick response code, the two-dimensional code that contains and retrieves more information more quickly than a traditional bar code.
“We're thinking of ways to get more value out of fish and catch more fish,” explains Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association in Brunswick. “Farmers are successful [in the farm-to-table movement]. Until recently, we haven't been.”
One reason is tracing the source of a fish can be difficult if a consumer doesn't buy it directly from the fisherman. Martens and others say that at the dock, fish are sold to distributors and can go through processors who cut off heads and gut fish from different boats all in the same sink.
“At the end of the day [it can be] hard to say who caught what,” says Martens.
“Consumers should care about where their fish comes from,” Martens says, adding that the project could be a good way to tout sustainably harvested New England fish and to “tell a fantastic story about a fish.”
Jen Levin, sustainable seafood program manager at GMRI, says the collaborators have created a proof-of-concept smartphone app and have $175,000 in grant funding through Maine Coast. The effort is now focused on creating the back-end data system that will collect and store the information.
She says the system will be open source so everyone can use it. The first meeting this coming October will include information technology specialists.
“The end goal is to empower consumers about where seafood is coming from,” Levin says. “Another goal is to help the Gulf of Maine seafood industry.”
She adds, “Some 91% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. A sophisticated data management system can help make seafood businesses more efficient.”
Getting more out of Maine's almost half-billion-dollar fisheries industry is critical for fishermen and for the state.
Maine's commercial fisheries had the third-highest landings by value in both 2012 and 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual “Fisheries of the United States” report. Landings of all types of fish in 2013 topped 265 million pounds valued at close to $474 million. That was up from over 262 million pounds valued at more than $448 million in 2012.
Getting better data on catches also could help predict the robustness of a fishery. That's something distributor Togue Brawn works on in the off-season to improve management of Maine's scallop industry. The former Maine Department of Marine Resources staffer also runs Downeast Dayboat Scallops Inc. out of Bath.
“We need reporting,” says Brawn. “Guys aren't putting in landing reports, and we need good, timely data.”
For her own business, she's using social media and other technology to find out when the many scallop fishermen she buys from will bring in their catch and how much they have, and then tries to let her customers know. She estimates she gets her scallops to customers within a couple days compared to 5-10 days for a large boat, which goes through more steps to get its scallops to grocers.
“I want people to understand how good Maine scallops are,” she says. “We have diamonds that we are selling as coal.”
Brawn is one example of Maine fishermen and women being more proactive with sales, says Hugh Cowperthwaite, director of CEI's fisheries project in Portland.
“She sources scallops from Down East fishermen and drives to Portland and New York City to restaurants. All the scallops are sold before she makes the trip,” he says.
“With a highly perishable product, efficiencies mean everything,” Cowperthwaite says.
CEI also has created its own website that includes lists of seafood in season and at what time of the year, where seafood products can be bought in Maine, who processes and adds value to Maine seafood, who transports Maine seafood by truck, who in Maine uses cold storage or freezers for seafood, who sources Gulf of Maine seafood from the Portland Fish Exchange and who is farm-raising Maine seafood.
The website aims to integrate Maine's seafood industry into food distribution systems in the Northeast and tap the trend of consumers wanting more locally sourced food. The website, however, is meant for businesses that would like to source Maine seafood, not for consumers seeking a good restaurant, he says.
The two-year project was funded with $75,000 in grants. Cowperthwaite is now preparing a new proposal for a $10,000 grant that would add individual fishermen to the site as well as more web analytics.
He says that since the site went live in January, it has had 1,696 page views and 1,454 unique users, with an average time a user spends on a page of 4-1/2 minutes.
Jared Auerbach, CEO and owner of Red's Best in Boston, is on his own crusade to cut paperwork, as he caters to smaller sellers. He delivers fish using 20 trucks that run from Rhode Island to Maine, and gives his proprietary software to dealers and others who have to enter fish catch and sales data.
Auerbach, who fished on commercial vessels in Alaska and Cape Cod, Mass., says it's difficult to manage data in the seafood industry. Whether it's one pound or 1,000 pounds of fish, a multi-part form has been part of the fishing life. That's the part Red's Best has automated.
“Our technology decreases data entry. We realize data we have to collect is valuable as well to the end user who can trace the story of the catch in a QR code,” he says. What had been difficult was getting the truck drivers, who also had to load and unload thousands of pounds of fish by hand, to do the paperwork. Now they can use a wireless, covered tablet at the dock.
“It increases the value of the product with real-time marketing and decreases the cost per transaction,” he says. “My software reduces redundant data entry.” The system's inventory can be used to handle settlements, government paperwork and other business.
“This data has tremendous value,” he says. “I sell wholesale to restaurants. We have a traceability label with all information in a QR code about every fish on every day.”
Technology can both help get information on available catches to buyers more quickly, as well as help eliminate wads of paper forms. Just ask Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange Inc., which in 2008 put its auction online at the request of buyers.
“Buyers had to pay $50,000 to have someone here to look at the fish,” he says. And an auctioneer also was expensive, as was the extra administrative person needed to handle the paper data.
“Our role for fishermen is to provide a market,” he says. “They call us 1-2 days before coming in, and processors and buyers can presell the fish.”
About 21 buyers participate in the auction, which runs Sunday through Thursday. It starts at 11 a.m. and runs till all the fish are sold, which can be as fast as 45 minutes or up to two hours, he says.
The auction days are set up so fishermen have a good chance to sell to New York's huge Fulton Fish market, which opens on Monday.
He says the auction is helping fishermen, as every buyer needs a letter of credit, so the boat is paid right away instead of the 30- to 90-day delays they used to incur.
“Technology has helped us save money and get a lot more information,” Jongerden says. “It interfaces with our website, and there is a PFEX.org app for smartphones with the auction hails on any given day and the seafood prices.”
One thing that concerns him is the upcoming requirement in October that fishing boats have scanners that would replace the observers. Those observers typically now go on 20% of trips, mostly to measure bycatch. The sensors, which would record data to be looked at later by the National Marine Fisheries Service, could assure the catch being brought in, but they also could pose privacy issues.
“Boats don't have latrines. Fishermen go on a bucket on the deck,” says Jongerden, who expects there to be a lot of contention over the scanners, which the boats might have to pay for. Right now, NMFS pays for the observers.
Calloused hands and multi-part forms often don't go together, but at the urging of his banker, Albert Carver, owner, president and CEO of A.C. Inc., a Beals island distributor of lobster, scallops, clams and other shellfish, realized he had to get his finances in order.
The first thing he did was talked to Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom Technologies in Machias, which had pulled in four State of Maine ConnectME grants totaling $900,000 to put high-speed Internet service at 90 Access Points across Washington county. One tower ended up in Carver's backyard.
“Six years ago we were doing ledger books and paper trails,” says Carver, the third generation in his family to run the business, which has 35 employees. “We had a severe lack of information on what we were buying and selling and on our profit margin. But to grow, my banker told me I needed this information on a daily basis.” He said he sometimes waited three months to get end-of-month figures. He now uses an accounting software program called Net Yield designed by LAN Infosystems Inc. of Plymouth, Mass.
“I've also gone to voice recognition because I can't type or spell. But it's been interesting,” he said through a thick Down East accent.
Over the past six years the company also set up a website that lists the products he sells and that can be bought online and has links to tide and other data from NOAA and a Facebook page.
He also can now keep continual track of water temperatures, which can give an idea of where certain fish might be.
“We can do inventory control, expenses, costing and other things. The software shows you trends and how much products cost differently and the amount of money day-to-day,” he says. “Before we operated on assumptions. Now we can look at our profit margins daily. We can catch problems and good things earlier.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Albert Carver's last name.