Record-Breaking Robotics Promises Province More Cash from our Crab Industry


Though we’re a province known for cod, snow crab is a bigger contributor to our economy. The landed value of shellfish in 2016 was $568 Million (48% of which came from snowcrab), while the landed value of groundfish and pelagics combined (cod, turbot, herring, capelin, etc) was $139 million.

There is big money in crab, but we’re unable to cash in on it the way we used to. In the past, Newfoundland sold canned and frozen crab meat into global markets that were hungry for it. But as other regions of the world began producing crab products that were more competitively priced than ours, we were forced out of the global marketplace for canned and frozen crab meat.

Since being forced out of the global marketplace for extracted crab meat, we’ve resorted to selling only “crab sections.” Crab sections are fresh or frozen halved crabs (the claws and legs, with the shell still attached).

We sell this un-extracted crab meat into two markets: the US and China. The United States buys the more attractive and retail-friendly sections, for sale in grocery stores and restaurants, where chefs and delis extract the meat themselves. China get the less attractive crab sections (the ones that are slightly broken or barnacle-covered), and they extract the meat in plants, then re-export into other markets, mainly Japan, but also Europe and the US.

Cracking back into the crab market with frozen/canned products would require some truly futuristic and innovative work in robotic automation. We’d have to turn to robots to make us a crab product that is competitively priced in today’s global market, and that’s exactly what we’ve done, with brilliant and groundbreaking work that was years in the making.

The Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation came up with the idea of creating the world’s first robotic system for butchering crab. They assembled a crackerjack team by combining the forces of both the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) and the Marine Institute’s Centre for Aquaculture and Seafood Development (CASD).

CNA and CASD provided the expertise of their staff and facilities, and Ocean Choice international was the industry partner, for funding and industry knowledge. The technology is currently undergoing a patenting process, and the cell they demonstrated in May, during Innovation Week, has had all 42 claims of uniqueness accepted. The hope is to master the final stage of their 3-step process, which would greenlight this robo-butcher being put to work in the province.

“CCFI’s fundamental mandate is to make the capabilities of academic institutions available to the aquaculture, fishing, and fish processing industry sectors, to help them take advantage of opportunities and solve problems,” said Robert Verge, managing director of CCFI.

“We began thinking about this project in 2010, with the overall objective of increasing the value we get from our crab resources. This world-leading ‘smart’ butchering technology is a major part of a system we are designing to do that.”

The robo-butcher does things we humans cannot do in an economically feasible way; properly extracting crab meat by hand is extremely arduous, and the Chinese plants that do it use tweezers under UV light. It’s ridiculously tedious and time-consuming, which is to say, a costly endeavour.

This new technology would not only put us back in the global crab game, it would do so without replacing human jobs, and the team is quite proud of that. This tech would not be replacing real live human jobs, because there really isn’t any plant workers extracting crab meat for export here now.

Here’s to hoping this technology one day gets adapted to a kitchen gadget for personal use at home. It’s definitely a trying act of precision science to wrestle that sweet treat of crab meat out of its shell.

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Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

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