Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Consumers Can Trace Fish, Fishermen Via Bar Code System

Seafood lovers who prefer eating local products will soon have another tool at their disposal – a bar-coding system that traces the history of their fish from ocean to market and introduces the buyer to the fishermen who supplied their meal.

It’s all part of a new pilot project called “Pacific Fish Trax,” which will be unveiled Feb. 20 in the Portland area at two New Seasons Market locations – in Cedar Hills (3495 Cedar Hills Blvd.) and Arbor Lodge (6400 N. Interstate).

A joint venture between Oregon State University, the Community Seafood Initiative and Oregon commercial fishermen, Pacific Fish Trax is a combination scientific venture and public outreach effort that is designed to ultimately shed light on the state’s commercial fishing industry and strengthen wild fish runs.

"There is a community of interest involved with Pacific Fish Trax and all of the participants have similar goals of using science to improve management of the resource and to help sustain our seafood harvest,: said Gil Sylvia, an OSU seafood economist and superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport, Ore.

Shoppers who purchase albacore tuna fillets at the two New Seasons Market stores beginning on Feb. 20 can stop at specially designed kiosks there and run a bar code on the label through a scanner that will introduce the consumer to the local fisherman who caught the fish, the boat from which it was caught, and the processor who packaged it.

Once home, they can access the Pacific Fish Trax website that will tell them where the fish was caught, its temperature history and other information. Maps and graphics will reveal ocean locations, conditions and even the contour of the seafloor.

Sylvia and others say this type of data has the potential to capture consumers in many venues.

"You can envision a chef at a seafood restaurant or a retailer at New Seasons telling the story of who caught this particular fish, and where it was caught,” Sylvia said. “It’s a way of connecting people directly to the food they eat."

This is a pilot project to see how consumers respond to such a marketing effort. Three Newport fishermen participated in this first venture and caught about 1,400 pounds of albacore that will be sold under the Pacific Fish Trax system.

Sylvia says this is just the first step and, in fact, the pilot project was supposed to focus on Oregon’s ocean salmon, but the widespread closure of the Pacific Ocean to salmon fishing in 2008 to protect a weak run of Sacramento River fish prompted the project coordinators to opt for albacore.

The pilot marketing effort is part of a larger program that originated at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center called Project CROOS, which stands for Collaborative Research on Oregon’s Ocean Salmon. As part of that project, 100 Oregon commercial fishermen have logged catch locations and ocean conditions of the salmon they’ve caught in 2006 and 2007 and sent fin and tissue sample to the laboratory of OSU geneticist Michael Banks, who runs DNA profiles to look for their river basin of origin.

The effort has been funded in part by the Oregon Innovation Council, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and federal Disaster Relief Funds, administered through the Oregon Salmon Commission and the Oregon Albacore Commission. Other partners include Oregon Sea Grant, NOAA Fisheries and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The idea of Project CROOS is to see if fish from certain rivers school together in the ocean and, if so, where. The scientists have a 94 percent success rate in identifying the origin of the fish, comparing the isotopic signatures with established data banks of 200 rivers in the Northwest, and validating their findings with fish that have coded wire tags. They can run the tests within 24 hours.

Eventually they hope their studies will enable resource managers to make in-season management decisions using real time data that will keep much of the ocean open for fishing while protecting weakened runs.

All of the scientific data gathered will soon be on the Pacific Trax website, available to researchers, the public and the fishermen themselves. It can be accessed after Feb. 20 at: http://www.PacificFishTrax.org

"The fishermen are sharing the data voluntarily because they want to improve the science and enhance the sustainability of the resource," Sylvia said. "That’s kind of cool. This isn’t something that came through a regulatory agency, it was a grass roots effort."

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