Loyola Marymount University-Led Team Wins National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator Award to Create Seafood Traceability Tool

LOS ANGELES — The world cephalopod catch, which includes octopuses and squid, has increased significantly over the past six decades. But octopus species are often misidentified, and their catch numbers and locations inaccurately reported, research shows, prompting fears that a dearth of data about these mollusks could lead to overfishing, threatening their future.

A multidisciplinary research team led by Loyola Marymount University aims to shift that course by creating an innovative seafood traceability network that will improve stock management and ensure the sustainability of octopus fisheries. The project’s first phase will be funded with a $750,000 award over 12 months from the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator.

“Working with a range of partners and leading-edge technology, we plan to produce a traceability tool that will allow for a better understanding of the species caught, the source of the product, and confirmation of its legitimate path from fishery to fork,” said Demian Willette, assistant professor of biology in LMU’s Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, who will serve as the team’s lead principal investigator.

The project is one of 28 awardees in the NSF Convergence Accelerator’s 2021 cohort. In the first phase, which includes nine months of intensive training and planning, teams will develop use-inspired solutions to societal challenges in two areas: ocean-related industries and resources, or communications systems aligned to combating misinformation, disinformation, and trust and authenticity.

The 15-member team led by Willette includes experts from seven countries in the fields of fisheries management, marine biology, computer science, data science and analytics, environmental anthropology, genetics, and fisheries trade policy. Additionally, 14 industry partners, from fishers to seafood processors, will help inform and test the human-centered design of the traceability tool for real-world use.

Their objectives are to develop a prototype traceability system allowing for affordable identification of species and area of capture for wild octopus fisheries in the U.S. and abroad; to bring together a community-based citizen-science network to gather new data from portable environmental DNA (eDNA) kits; and to set a system in place to link traceability, sustainability and legality to support the development of a blue economy around the octopus value chain.

eDNA is free DNA that persists in the environment, providing an indication of which organisms are prevalent or in the vicinity. Water samples collected by team members off Southern California and Campeche/Yucatan, Mexico will be analyzed at Willette’s LMU laboratory, and the results stored with other data in the SeaTraceBlueNet dashboard.

While the team will focus on cephalopods, Willette said, its overall aim is to provide a comprehensive system to enable any seafood item to be harvested, distributed and processed through to the consumer in sustainable ways.

The Convergence Accelerator’s curriculum, consisting of human-centered design, user discovery, team science, early-stage prototyping, and pitch preparation is designed to provide our funded teams the tools to transition their solutions into practice,” said Office Head Douglas Maughan of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. “Phase One teams are expected to apply the curriculum, as well as focus on cross-cutting partnerships as most national-scale challenges cannot be solved with a single discipline and expertise.”

In addition to LMU, team members and industry partners represent: The Bay Foundation; Tohoku University Graduate School/Agricultural Science; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); AiCeph LLC; Rhodes University; Booz Allen Hamilton; El Colegio de la Frontera Sur; Jupiter Data Factory; Tohoku University Center for Northeast Asian Studies; Brandenberg University of Technology; Alaska Pacific University; Aberystwyth University; Netuno USA Inc.; North Atlantic Inc.; Stavis Foods; Tetra Tech Inc.; Coastal Ocean Observing System/Gulf of Mexico (GCOOS); Marganzo Seafood; SmartFish Inc.; Santa Monica Seafood Inc.; NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS); Sociedad Coopertiva Punta Maxtun; Sea Pact; and Iridian Genomes Inc.