Massachusetts Oyster Farmer Putting IoT to Work

By employing a heat-sensing camera and attaching temperature sensors to shipments of live oysters, one aquaculturalist hopes to change how shellfish growers track their products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 13, 2016

Oyster farming is still living in the Dark Ages, and Daniel Ward says he wants to bring it into the 21st century. The entrepreneur and researcher is working with Verizon on a pilot project at Ward Aquafarms, his 10-acre aquaculture operation in Megansett Harbor, on Massachusetts' Cape Code, aimed at improving the traceability of his oyster harvest.

"Aquaculture is pretty rudimentary compared to terrestrial agriculture," says Ward, who, in addition to running Ward Aquafarms since 2011, serves as a research fellow at the Marine Biology Laboratory in nearby Woods Hole. "The condition of soil, its nutrients, how much moisture is needed—that is all driven by data," he says, referring to terrestrial farming practices. But oyster farmers, he adds, "just set things in water and see what happens."

Oyster cages sitting on a dock, post-harvest, seen through Mobotix camera
When oysters are ready to harvest, they are pulled from the water, boxed up and sent up the supply chain. But because they are shipped and often consumed while they are still alive, oysters pose a human health danger if they are not properly chilled from the time of harvest and at each step in their transit, up until the point of consumption. Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus—bacteria that can be found in the seawater where oysters live—may be present in raw oysters in quantities high enough to cause illness. Warm temperatures during the shipment process may cause the amount of Vibrio bacteria inside oysters to increase to dangerous levels.

For that reason, tracking temperatures at harvest, and as oysters move through the supply chain, is important—but Ward says it is a manual process, carried out with pen and paper. "I write the date, time and temperature of the water when I harvest and pass that along to the wholesaler," he explains. The wholesaler and any logistics providers that handle the oysters from the point of harvest until when they reach the consumer must also add temperature data to this record.

Vibrio bacteria exist naturally in marine waters around the world. Oysters accumulate these bacteria as they filter water while feeding. The bacteria multiply when the water is warm, and oysters harvested from warmer regions and seasons, therefore, often have high levels of these bacteria. To make temperature tracking more reliable, easier and precise at the point of harvest, Ward has installed a cloud-connected thermal radiometry sensor at the oyster farm.

The sensor, made by German manufacturer Mobotix AG, is integrated into a camera that generates dual side-by-side images: both conventional and thermal video. The camera is mounted on a dock in the bay, Ward explains, in a position enabling it to capture images of workers pulling the cages containing the mature oysters from the water. The time and date appear on the conventional video images, while the thermal image shows a temperature profile. The camera continues to track the temperature while the oysters are pulled from the cages and prepared for shipment inside mesh bags, thereby generating a more complete temperature profile than just the water temperature at the time of harvest. The camera transmits this data to the Verizon ThingSpace IoT platform via a cellular modem, and the data is stored in the cloud and can be referenced later.

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