IoT helping Tassie oyster farmers avoid unnecessary closures

Startup deploys IoT and the cloud to transform Tasmania's million-dollar oyster farming industry

Tasmanian agri-tech startup The Yield's goal was to provide oyster farmers with a technology-based solution for minimising unnecessary farm closures that prevent them from harvesting their stock. After a viral outbreak devastated local growers in 2016, their integrated IoT and cloud computing solution is now an essential part of their efforts to prevent another outbreak.

Oysters are filter feeders leaving farmers with little control other than to harvest their stock, move the oysters, or raise them out of the water. The traditional concern for farmers has revolved around rainfall which brings the risk of runoff collecting contaminants that enter estuaries, making their oysters unsafe for human consumption. Growers must then close the affected areas of their farms and cannot harvest their oysters for several weeks until the risk of contamination passes.

Tasmanian farmers have lost an average AU$4.3 million annually over the last three years but research has revealed 30 percent of farm closures were unnecessary as there was no food safety risk. In the past, data manually gathered by farmers and authorities was labour intensive and often inaccurate. Unwarranted closures result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Without better data, closing a farm is always safer than risking public health, as well as avoiding the reputational damage and expense of a recall.

The Yield has partnered with local farmers, state governments, and vendors including Bosch, Microsoft, and Intel to minimise unnecessary closures. It's rolled out sensors in fourteen Tasmanian estuaries, covering 80 percent of the state's oyster farms. The sensors are manufactured by Bosch and measure water depth, salinity, and temperature, as well as barometric pressure in the atmosphere. Sensor data is uploaded every five minutes via Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite with access to the data available to farmers and food safety regulators via The Yield's own app.

Image: Supplied

Lloyd Klump, general manager of Biosecurity Tasmania, Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE), welcomes the sensor technology. "It reduces paperwork, it reduces the burden on industry and the burden on staff because there's that necessary exchange of information. It takes the pressure off us, it takes the pressure off producers and enables more efficient controls of food safety."

Prior to The Yield's solution, farmers and regulators pulled data from sources of varying reliability as well as collected their own salinity measurements, and without accurate information would err on the side of ensuring food safety by closing oyster farms. Ros Harvey, managing director of The Yield, said measuring salinity is a much more accurate measure of contamination risk and allows the reduction of closures.

The Yield has taken over 100 years of weather data and built models of long-term tidal and weather patterns using historical weather data as well as the data from their sensors. COO Phil Randall has said their preliminary modelling indicates they're able to predict water temperature to "within half a degree celsius with 95 percent confidence." The Yield's ultimate goal is to provide highly accurate predictive data that allows farmers to plan ahead with some certainty instead of being reactive to weather events.

For Justin Goc, general manager of Barilla Bay Oysters, whose farm occupies shallower waters, having both atmospheric and tidal data integrated in one app means knowing whether he has five minutes or five hours to harvest. "You can start making decisions. Alright the pressure's no good, it's very low, it's probably not suitable for us to do some oyster farming, let's go and do something else. So instead of causing trouble with your staff and getting them wet and upset, you go and do something else."

(Image: Supplied)

Managing uncertainty is now more important than ever after Tasmania was struck with Pacific Ocean Mortality Syndrome for the first time in February 2016. Better known as POMS, outbreaks of the disease occur when water temperatures become warm enough to activate the virus. The first report of a POMS outbreak occurred in France in 2008, and since that time it has affected the rest of Europe, New South Wales, and most recently, Tasmania.

"My business here lost about 70 percent of our stock" sad Goc. "I was looking at about 700,000 dozen this financial year and I might only be around 150-200 [thousand dozen] give or take."

"We live in a world where risks are growing," said Klump, "and they grow because of changes in the environment, climate change for example, and POMS is evidence of that."

With Tasmania's industry worth $23-24 million and growing, the partnership is as important to the state government and food safety regulators, as well as growers.

"It's exciting" said Michael Ferguson, Minister for Information Technology and Innovation. "You don't see many public/private partnerships where both parties genuinely can walk away and say this looks like a big win for us."

Disclaimer: Dave Cheng travelled to Hobart as a guest of Microsoft