The Ocean

Picture of tuna caught by fishermen

Tuna can be a profitable catch for fishermen, but much of the industry lacks transparency.

Photograph by Napat Chaichanasiri, Flickr

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.

Jared Auerbach is a young entrepreneur and former commercial fisherman who hopes to provide detailed information to seafood consumers through technology. His Boston-based company, Red's Best, is a distributor that takes in fish from small-scale and responsible fishermen and gets it to markets around the country.

Red's Best says it can do this more efficiently, and with better traceability, than competitors thanks to a web-based software platform Auerbach developed.

Auerbach explained that there has been little transparency and accountability in the mainstream seafood business, meaning consumers often don't know what they are getting, where it came from, and if it was caught sustainably.

"Of course local fish should be packaged and consumed locally, but that's not what happens," Auerbach said.

Auerbach added that mainstream seafood companies have been stuck in an old model that prizes company longevity and sourcing products from all over the world, while "muddying" the details of the supply chain. "The trend now is local, traceable, environmentally sustainable, clean food," he said.

"There's no industry that can service that better than wild seafood. When I eat chicken I wonder how many steroids did they add, and how did they mess with it? This fish, we didn't do anything to it, we just caught it," said Auerbach.

"Networked Fishermen"

Auerbach said that when he founded Red's Best in 2008 (and named it after his nickname), he started from the assumption that smaller boats and more local fishers are better for the environment and coastal communities. But he saw that smaller catches meant more frequent dock landings, more truck trips, and more paperwork per unit sold.

He also noticed that the paper-based system of tracking products was inefficient and that it added to the murkiness of traceability. Since most fish is sold on consignment, fishermen relied on distributors to get the math right. "When I was a fisherman I didn't like that, there is a lot of mistrust and animosity," said Auerbach.

So Auerbach developed web-based software that streamlines the business. Fishermen and dockworkers use tablets or laptops to log the details of each delivery, and they can track the lot through the chain. The system interfaces with accounting software and it has a virtual marketplace, where buyers can directly place orders online. The data can also be uploaded to SAFIS, the government seafood quota system for the Atlantic coast.

"Any dock in the country can feed into this system, and they can take advantage of our centralized sales staff," said Auerbach. For now, a handful of seafood companies in the Northeast are using Red's Best technology. Some have licensed the software for their use, while others are putting their products into the stream. Red's Best is currently selling direct at area farmers' markets, and is looking into developing a "retail pack."

Each product is sold with a QR (quick response) code; when the consumer scans it, he or she gets information about the fish, how it was caught, and who the fisherman was. "This is info we have and that the public really wants," said Auerbach. He added that Red's Best is working with retailers to better share the story of the catch. "We're keeping money in the supply chain and adding value to the product," he said.

Improving Sustainability

That traceability also makes it easier for consumers to ensure that their dinner is sustainable. A quick scan at the counter can be checked against a seafood guide maintained by National Geographic or Seafood Watch.

"We follow all the government rules, give you all the info on this fish, and you can make your own decision," said Auerbach.

He added that Red's Best is also about sustaining jobs. "It's about 200 boats instead of one huge boat," said Auerbach. "It's so cool seeing these small towns with working waterfronts. Sustaining these communities is good for tourism and everyone's health."

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