After the 2010 BP oil spill, consumers were so concerned about the origin and safety of their fish and shrimp that many simply stopped buying, resulting in a chain reaction of economic hardship for the fishing industry and seafood markets and restaurants.
There was no comprehensive system in place to tell consumers where their shrimp, fish and oysters were coming from. But now there is.
It's called Gulf Seafood Trace, a fledgling program conceived and administered by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, a quasi-government group funded by Congress through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The group is charged with promoting and protecting Gulf fisheries.
The traceability program allows the Gulf seafood industry to electronically record and post information about seafood from boat to market or plate using an electronic technology called Trace Register. The $2 million program is offered at no cost until the end of 2014 and includes native seafood species produced by aquaculture, said Alex Miller, a staff economist with the commission.
Brad Lomax, owner of several seafood restaurants, sees the program as a potential marketing hook and believes it could help alleviate consumer concerns about the safety, origin, handling and labeling of seafood.
He believes most fishing operations would be willing to maintain computer records of their catch.
"About half the people in the industry are reasonable and honest," Lomax said. "I'm for anything that puts consumers' minds at ease and improves the product."
The Gulf Trace program, which began in March, involves 49 seafood companies in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Participation is free through 2014, when organizers hope enrollees will be willing to pay an administrative fee for the service.
For the trial period, the program is focusing on businesses that harvest seafood from the Gulf, shrimpers, oyster harvesters and fin-fish operations. The idea is to get fishermen familiar with the operation before expanding into restaurants and seafood markets.
Once in full swing, and even now, consumers may use a smartphone to scan a QR code on a seafood package to see where the item was caught and off-loaded and where it was sold and processed. This requires downloading a free app. In some cases, consumers may have the option to view the information by accessing it later on a website through their home computer or laptop.
Many commercial seafood captains are familiar with similar electronic data-collection systems as required by NOAA on certain species. So learning the software is not a big leap for them, said Malinda Kelley, with the New Orleans consulting firm GCR promoting the program.
Consumers also might want to know they are buying seafood caught close to home, thereby reducing transportation pollution, boosting freshness and flavor or benefiting the local economy.
"Consumers want to know where their seafood comes from," Kelley said. "Eventually we see this kind of traceability as a demand from high-end retailers. We're already seeing it. Whole Foods is using it."
All this information is available through Gulf Seafood Trace. To some extent each participant is allowed to chose how much information is revealed. Exact locations are not given. Instead, they list a gulf zone, which is charted and numbered in federal waters. Gulf zones range in size from 3,600 to 9,000 square nautical miles, said Larry Beerkircher with the Fishery Sampling Branch of NOAA Fisheries.
Honesty in reporting is key to the program's credibility. Safeguards are in place to make sure fishermen are not providing misinformation, inaccurate data or attempting to deceive.
"We have an independent auditor plus checks and balances in the software," Kelley said. "And we have random checks to assure accuracy."