by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Telling the stories of the fishermen bringing Gulf seafood directly to the consumers plate is the goal of Fish Trax Marketplace, an online traceability program building a community of trust among all of the links of the seafood value chain—from fisherman to dealer to retailer to consumer.
The Fisheries Information System was developed to help fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico share information about the quality, safety, and sustainable harvesting of their seafood with seafood buyers and consumers.
The program was developed in 2007 by Oregon-based Advanced Research Corporation through a partnership with Oregon State University, NOAA, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other collaborating organizations doing scientific research on fish. Its first use was tracking where fishermen were catching Oregon salmon.
“Simply put, the program provides where fish are caught and who caught it,” said John Lavrakas, CEO of TerraMar Innovations, the company responsible for developing and marketing Fish Trax. “By sharing the stories of who brings your seafood to your plate, consumers learn about where their seafood originates.”
In 2011 Advanced Research, OSU, and members of the Oregon fishing industry were asked by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders alliance to implement a system similar to the Oregon Fish Trax program for Gulf Red Snapper, eventually evolving into the current Gulf Wild traceability program. In 2013, the collaborative formed TerraMar Innovations to carry forward the development and marketing of Fish Trax.
Gulf Program Goes International
A member of the Gulf Wild program, David Krebs, president of Florida’s Ariel Seafood and a Gulf Seafood Institute board member, envisioned a much larger program, one that could be expanded nationwide and eventually internationally.
“The Gulf Wild program provided consumer information by entering a trace code,” explained Lavrakas. “Information can be found on where a fish was caught, who caught it, a story and photo of the fisherman and his vessel. It is an exciting program, but it only affected the Gulf of Mexico.”
Using Fish Trax as the base model, new features and innovations were incorporated into the newly renamed program, Fish Trax Marketplace. The site not only allows consumers to learn where their fish came from and who caught it, but it provides a whole new set of capabilities that allow retailers like restaurants and fish markets, as well as processors, to share information with the consumer.
The new program started beta testing in May 2013 and its current version came on online in January of this year. Unlike Gulf Wild, which tracks only 19 Gulf species like red snapper and grouper, Fish Trax Marketplace is able to track more than 70 species being commercially caught, including red snapper, grouper, tile fish, salmon, Dungeness crab, pink shrimp and albacore tuna.
Fish Trax Marketplace provides dealers who purchase the seafood from their fishermen with a mobile web presence that shares the story about their business and the fishermen that work with them. Ship captains’ keeps a log of harvest location and species that are turned in when the catch is unloaded at the fish house. The information is then uploaded to Fish Trax. Labels containing a QR code are printed for the boxes of fish with species, vessel and country of origin information.
“Ariel Seafood is committed to this full trace,” said Krebs. “As a first receiver we record each shipment that arrives at the dock, each trip of the fisherman, the species, the land date, the GPS coordinates of the catch location, as well as the name of the captain and vessel.”
According to Krebs, each shipping container is marked with a waterproof label containing the country of origin, the species, as well as a trace and QR code that immediately takes you to the site having all other pertinent information.
Chefs and Consumers Love Program
On the consumer side, restaurants and retailers are provided with smaller stickers having the same trace and QR code. Consumers can scan the code by a smartphone or tablet device, and it displays information about where that specific fish had been caught, providing short descriptive information about the fisherman, the vessel, and the fish house that processed and sold the seafood.
“We rolled out our first draft of the program with Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s Restaurant in Gulf Shores, Alabama, as well as Crabs on the Beach and Flounders in Pensacola, Florida,” Lavrakas said. “We are constantly modifying the product to meet the needs of retailers, as well as their consumers. We continuously listen to the interests and concerns of both groups, and talk with restaurants and retailers about what they see important.”
For Executive Chef Dylan G. Feenker, the Fish Trax team brought friendly tracking software to the tables of Alabama’s LuLu’s. According to the chef, the software isn’t just friendly and efficient for his restaurant, but also the boat captains and fish houses he catching and processing his fish.
“Here at LuLu’s we are dedicated to finding great tasting, sustainable and locally caught Gulf Fish. Believe it or not this is often more difficult to accomplish than one might think,” said the Alabama chef. “Once we met David Krebs, and his boat captains, we knew we had a partner that would work with us in doing the right things for the right reasons.”
After meeting with Krebs, Chef Feenker decided upon locally caught Gulf Red Snapper as the product of choice for his restaurant. “It is one of the best tasting fish in the world, we could establish a tracking system to make sure the fish were being caught in local waters, and we had boat captains pledging they would catch the snapper in only the most responsible way,” he explained on why he chose Fish Trax.
Since the implementation of the program at LuLu’s, customers have given their overwhelming support to the program. The Chef sees a customers willing to pay a little more for a product that they know is handled responsibly and caught locally giving chefs and restaurant community the option to offer such product on their menus.
“At LuLu’s we have seen an increase in snapper sales every year since we started using Fish Trax, and yes it cost a little more than an imported snapper,” said Feenker. “We have little cards we hand to each customer ordering Red Snapper. The easy to use program is an important detail in my opinion, as a program to difficult or complicated, quite frankly probably won’t be used.”
The new program links consumers and producers, but also the dealers, restaurants, and retail shops “in between.” Research shows that when producers and consumers connect and share their experiences and needs, the entire marketplace benefits. In turn, this vital and valuable information supports sustainable communities and businesses, and contributes to the health of the resource.
“It does take a little more work to use the system than it would to just pick up the phone and order a fish from just any vendor, but the rewards far outweigh the effort,” said Chef Feekner. “To be honest it’s more like fun than work for me because of the great people involved.”
Lavrakas admits that the program’s growth has been slow. “We are still working on the value proposition for each part of the seafood chain. We want to make sure we are providing value to fisherman, processors and the retailers. We are working closely with each segment that they receive value for participating in the program and making sure our product meets their needs,” he explained.
Fish Trax is accessible via any mobile device, without the hassle of accessing a downloadable app. In addition it is interactive, allowing the consumer to give feedback and information about their experience with the retailer or the fish.
The information collected on the database allows retailers to access what their consumers are saying. “This is invaluable marketing information because it allows restaurants and retailers to customize their experiences,” said Krebs.
Social media is also an important part of the new Gulf Fish Trax program, allowing users to easily post comments on Facebook and Twitter timelines.
“They are telling their friends about the experience they just had, like I just had a wonderful time at LuLu’s where I was served some unbelievable red snapper and knew exactly where it came from,” Lavrakas explained about the importance of social media. “Suddenly they are sharing with all their friends where their seafood came from.”
Lavrakas said that they are exploring international options, and is currently working with a partner in Singapore to develop a traceability program for seafood from Southeast Asia that can be shared within the Southeast Asian markets.
“What differentiates this program from earlier versions is the ability to share additional information, such as statements by fisherman on their sustainability and traceability beliefs, also information the restaurant and the chef preparing the dish as well as the ability to share videos,” Krebs said. “The software works wonderfully and we have been receiving very positive feedback from consumers, as well as retailers, that are using the program. We have a ton of comments that ‘Love this program’.”