Octopus traceability project incorporates blockchain and eDNA technologies

A plate of cooked octopus tentacles.

A project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is working to create a traceability tool using blockchain to track the movement of octopus through the seafood value-chain.

Field researchers for the project were posted in Campeche and Yucatan in Mexico and the U.S. states of California and Alaska in December 2021 to gather octopus environmental DNA (eDNA) for molecular analysis. The eDNA will be used to create a database, and if successful, it should help curb mislabeling – both intentional and mistaken – according to Ian Gleadall, one of the researchers working on the project.

Using eDNA for molecular analysis has proven to be an effective tool for detecting the presence of species, and is being applied more frequently in place of traditional survey fishing. It usually uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process – also used in the COVID-19 antibody test – to rapidly duplicate genetic material left in the environment to a quantity that can be effectively detected and identified.

The NSF awarded funding to the project in September 2021 as part of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program, which aims to facilitate different groups – such as academics, companies and government agencies – working together to contribute to a particular project that will have a major impact on improving human society.

The project formally started 1 October, 2021. The initial USD 749,599 (EUR 664,069) grant was awarded to an international team for which the principal investigator is Demian Willete, an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. The 17-member team includes co-principal investigators Hassan Moustahfid in the U.S., Warwick Sauer in South Africa, and Cheryl Ames and Ian Gleadall in Japan.

“The drive to apply for this sprang out of conversations between me and Warwick Sauer [co-author on the world octopus fisheries review],” Gleadall said. “We noticed a number of anomalies in the stats for octopus catches, almost certainly due to the effects of IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing. This project is geared up to providing a means to make octopus stocks sustainable, which involves helping to stamp out IUU fishing along the way. If it works, it will be applicable to other seafood products, and indeed to any type of human food product.”

It is planned as a three-year project for which they will apply for an additional grant to carry the project into its next phase. At the end of three years, they plan to have a product – a smartphone identification and traceability app –available and close to release for everyday use.

While the project is funded by the United States, the U.S. is a minor player in octopus, both as a consumer and producer. Japan and Spain are the biggest importers, while the West African countries of Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal are the major exporters.

Octopuses are particularly hard to identify because they lack bones and can change color. Formerly, many similar species and subspecies were lumped together under the catch-all species Octopus vulgaris. Research is revealing physical and genetic differences that could merit division into several distinct species. Gleadall said that even experts have a hard time identifying different species correctly, so DNA-based identification is crucial.

“We plan to put all of this functionality into an app that will be open to anyone,” Gleadall said. “This will enable anyone to input data, or to use their phone app to identify any octopus they find, or to find out where a particular product came from originally, including prices, as it comes through the food chain from fisher to consumer. The data are being stored in a cloud-based system to enable everything to work as smoothly as possible."

The traceability system will utilize blockchain, which creates a permanent record identifying each step and transaction along the way.

The project is planning to produce three main deliverables. First, it will develop a dashboard prototype traceability tool that allows affordable identification of species and area of capture for wild octopus fisheries within the United States and abroad using a machine learning model called “SeaTraceBlueNet,” trained on existing environmental metadata, species occurrence, and images.

Second, it will develop a community-based citizen-science network of fishers, researchers, industry partners, and students to gather new data images, metadata, and environmental DNA (eDNA), which has previously been used in studies of Japan's eel population. Those in the network will train on and test portable eDNA kits and a SeaTraceBlueNet prototype to to establish a standardized traceability system. The species identification data will be incorporated into a smartphone application that includes a database of images and information on the ranges of different species, refined through collection of eDNA.

Third, it will set up a system to connect traceability, sustainability, and legality to support the development of a blue economy around the octopus value-chain, incorporating the best practices and existing standards from stakeholders. 

Photo courtesy of Fotografiasaez/Shutterstock


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