Streamlining Shellfish Operations
Maine-based shellfish technology company BlueTrace has won a $500,000 NOAA Small Business Innovation Research grant to expedite their innovative shellfish tagging and traceability efforts. Seeing a need in the shellfish market to more effectively manage and track harvests, founder and CEO Chip Terry and his partners started Oyster Tracker. That product quickly evolved into the BlueTrace tool for shellfish harvesters to print tags and digitally record the harvest logs required by law.
BlueTrace’s pioneering iOS app allows shellfish growers to input data through their phones (or iPads) in the field, simplifying required financial and harvest reporting. Buyers can then print harvest and dealer tags with an embedded QR code, recording all the necessary information for tracking and selling. BlueTrace tags cost less on average than preprinted tags, without the more cumbersome and error-prone labor of handwriting data.
“We started this company because we had friends who were struggling to manage the regulatory compliance involved in fast-growing aquaculture businesses—especially shellfish farms,” said Terry. “As demand grew, we secured funding from the private sector… who share our belief that, in order to grow and prosper, the seafood industry needs a system that easily tracks products from the tideline to the table.”
BlueTrace won a Phase I grant in 2021. With this new Phase II grant they will be able to add new features to the app and accommodate additional species. They will also build out the company's business development/sales team, hire more engineers and marketers, and attend more industry events. The company’s mission is to create an affordable and reliable means of complying with state and federal shellfish documentation and reporting requirements.
Regulatory Compliance: A Growing Challenge
Historically, tracking the origin of shellfish and the chain of custody from harvest to supermarket has been difficult. Evolving federal regulations mean the challenge will become only more complex. The Food Safety Modernization Act requires that by 2024, any food must be able to be traced to its origins. Traceability is important to verify sustainability, prove legality, and increase food safety, for example in the event of a seafood recall. Additionally, consumers often wish to know where their seafood was grown and if it is grown legally and sustainably.
BlueTrace follows the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference’s guidance, which promotes the sanitation of shellfish at the producer, state, and federal levels. They have customized the app in accordance with ISSC guidelines to reflect different requirements for different states. “For example, Washington State requires growers to record the temperature at harvest, while Alabama wants to know the time of landing and Florida wants to know how you refrigerated the product,” says Terry. BlueTrace is adaptable for each state's requirements and for different species.
Ideally the QR codes are scanned along the distribution route at every point, enabling complete tracing from tide to market along the chain of custody. The chain of custody flows from growth of the shellfish, to collection of the seafood, preparation for sale, distribution to stores and retailers, and finally, sales to consumers.
BlueTrace plans on implementing a link so the codes can be read by supermarket scanners, too, allowing for all the steps from harvest to consumer purchase to be logged.
Shellfish Industry Embraces BlueTrace
BlueTrace’s 300-plus customers (growers and seafood distributors) are in every coastal state except Hawaii and Mississippi. They are adding three to five new companies each week. Roughly 60 percent of Blue Trace’s new business comes from customer referrals. Social media has been helpful in promoting the tool through engaging photography and stories.
“Groups like the East Coast Aquaculture Association, Pacific Coast Aquaculture Association, Oyster South, and the many state/provincial level groups do an amazing job of advocating for and educating this industry about the BlueTrace tool. By working with them, we can support their mission and build relationships in this tight-knit community,” says Terry.
Future goals for BlueTrace include expanding beyond the shellfish industry into the greater seafood market. Originally designed for bivalves, “our clients then started using us for finfish, shrimp, lobster, and crabs— we are catching up with them to make sure it fits the unique needs of those segments,” notes Terry. BlueTrace has also moved into working with international growers, including all of the coastal Canadian provinces and even clients in Australia.