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Location Intelligence is Making Seafood Sustainable

Seafood is often seen as a healthy, more environmentally conscious choice for consumers parsing meat options.

The idea of fresh tuna compared to resource-intensive farmed beef certainly seems more sustainable. But in reality, two thirds of the world’s consumed sea creatures are overfished and depleted. Since the ocean bears no commercial ownership rights in the same way grazing land does, most fishing companies must maximize their haul from seas with fickle rates of supply and replenishment. The animals we fish cannot procreate as fast as we are catching them. And this has led to a huge percentage of the world’s fisheries falling into decline.

DJI 0005Harvest beds at Taylor Shellfish Farms.

Fortunately, one type of seafood where demand is growing rapidly, is also the most sustainable and environmentally friendly to grow, harvest, and consume: bivalve shellfish. Contrary to most forms of food production, the farming of oysters, for instance, actually has a positive impact. Oysters sequester nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, effectively purifying the water they grow in.

Recently, elevated levels of this carbon dioxide being absorbed by the oceans has caused a rise in water acidity levels. This lesser-known consequence of air pollution inspired Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest producer of shellfish in the US, to invest in location intelligence technology and a genetics program. This allowed them to not only understand what was working with each specific crop, but to track them at every step along the supply chain. Taylor Shellfish still must raise their mollusks in the ocean, but thanks to cutting edge apps, maps, and even drones, they are ensuring the expanding market for bivalve shellfish becomes a model for sustainable and eco-friendly aquaculture.

file 17Nyle Taylor of Taylor Shellfish launches a drone to capture farm bed imagery.

Nature and Markets Challenge Supply

A little over ten years ago, Taylor Shellfish started feeling the impact of rising ocean acidity levels on its 30 farms, which span 10,000 acres of tidelands in the Pacific Northwest. Oysters in hatcheries as well as those in the wild across the region experienced a die-off estimated in the billions. By 2008, Taylor Shellfish hatchery production had dropped by 60 percent. Acidification robs young oysters of the minerals they require to make their shells. Without these nutrients, young oysters work too hard, becoming exhausted and prone to disease or death.

The entire shellfish industry harbored doubts about its long-term viability after grappling with this ordeal. Taylor Shellfish heeded the warning and embraced technology to provide a solution. Their first step was to invest in high-tech pH sensors that would track the acidity of the ocean water they pumped into their operations. This added awareness helped them to quickly change practices and work to reduce acidity levels, which led to an oyster rebound.

But the company’s innovation came just at a time when demand for shellfish in particular was growing. This and the reduced output of wild fisheries put aquaculture front and center of a movement to create and maintain sustainable seafood production techniques to feed a growing population.

Drone PotterLeaseTaylor Shellfish uses the imagery from drones to map things like beach drainage and layout, so shellfish seeds don’t wash away.

Tracing Each Oyster, Bed to Bar

Taylor Shellfish Farms has been family-owned for five generations. Based in Shelton, Washington, the business has steadily expanded the scale and scope of its operations over the years. Starting with a single farm that sold shellfish to a processor, the next generation expanded into processing. More recently, it has added hatcheries and its own oyster bars to sell products directly to customers.

The journey of each shellfish starts in hatcheries where Taylor Shellfish Farms breeds oysters, clams, and geoduck. The “seeds” for each shellfish are then planted on tidal beaches, and the farm nurtures shellfish until maturity. It harvests and processes these shellfish and finally, distributes them to market and to the tables in its oyster bars. Apps like Collector for ArcGIS—central to the recently launched genetics program—keep track of each farm bed’s contents and the individual oysters’ maturity.

“We have shuckers that open hundreds of oysters every day in our oyster bars, and they can tell us which ones aren’t looking good,” said Nyle Taylor, Farm Project Coordinator, and fifth-generation family member. Taylor Shellfish’s new approach combines these “human sensors”—employees who are experts in shellfish quality—with technology that aggregates information on what happened and where.

Spatial analytics provides the backbone of this capability, and farmers use apps accessible anywhere from mobile devices to inform the system. This technology allows personnel to see data on maps, as well as visualizing how that data changes. With knowledge of conditions and lineage, Taylor staff can pick the best offspring based on resilience to acidity, and identify the greatest growth rates, appearance, and taste. “We grow enough oysters that a 2 or 3 percent improvement in survival has real value,” Taylor said.

Sustainable, Responsible, Efficient

Increased awareness about the health of shellfish starts in the hands of each farmer. Taylor Shellfish provides apps that its farmers and fieldworkers use to track operations on all the farms, from planting seeds to moving crops, and all the maintenance that happens as harvest approaches. These apps communicate with a cloud-based system, which provides the ability to visualize and analyze data to uncover operational inefficiencies.

“We can compare farm-to-farm, understand the techniques that lead to improvements, quantify that value, and push the best techniques to other farms,” Taylor said.

These apps also help keep track of inventories, budgets, and all of the various operational details that enable the company to comply with regulations at the local, state, and federal levels. Such regulations often require many permits, and most permits need to be mapped.

For years, Taylor Shellfish would submit hand-drawn maps for each permit, but this changed when it hired Erin Ewald to the position of Assistant Director of Regulatory and Environmental Compliance. Ewald had experience with spatial analytics technology, and quickly put it to use maintaining farm bed maps. She managed and updated the maps and made this data mobile.

“Now, we can compile information and push it to the right people,” Taylor said. “These apps are so straightforward that our farmers see the benefit. They can use them while they do the work, saving them time, and they don’t have to come to the office to enter data when they’re all wet and muddy from the tide.”

Leading the Way in Conservation and Innovation

Taylor Shellfish prides itself on a history of environmentalism, achieving the only Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification in the United States which designates that their shellfish are farmed responsibly. The company adopted environmental processes to ensure farming practices work in harmony with the natural environment in the Puget Sound, taking care not to harm the surrounding salmon and forage fish species.

New implementations of drone technology are also helping Taylor Shellfish protect its harvests from the effects of tidal flows. Drones can capture detailed imagery of farm beds at low tide with a clear understanding of elevation, giving Taylor staff critical detail to place the beds at optimum depth for farming each specific species. Through an application called Drone2Map for ArcGIS, Taylor Shellfish has greatly improved the mapping of farm beds and can now better see beach drainage and layout, so seeds won’t get washed away.

The global demands are only increasing for more and diverse seafood options such as oysters, clams, and mussels. As long as overfishing and ocean acidity due to the effects of air pollution remain a challenge, shellfish farming offers a productive and sustainable way to satisfy this growing market. And the new technologies that use location intelligence as their foundation will serve as fundamental tools for sustainable, environmentally friendly fisheries for years to come.

By Peter LiCalsi, Esri



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