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

There is big money crab, but we haven't been able to maximally cash in on it, until now.

Cod might be king in Newfoundland, but snow crab is a bigger contributor to our economy. The landed value of shellfish in 2016 was $568 Million, and 48% of that figure came from snowcrab. Meanwhile, 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 no longer able to cash in on it as amply as we used to. there was a time when Newfoundland sold canned and frozen crab meat into global markets that were hungry for it. But other regions of the world began producing crab products that were more competitively priced, and 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 these crab sections into two markets: the US and China.

Cracking back into the crab market with frozen and canned products would require some truly futuristic and innovative work in robotic automation, and MUN’s Marine Institute are up for the challenge. The Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation came up with the idea of creating the world’s first robotic system for butchering crab.

The brilliant and groundbreaking work has been years in the making. 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 provided the funding and industry knowledge as an industry partner. 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 to do so. It’s ridiculously tedious and time-consuming, which is to say, a costly endeavour.

This new technology could once again make us players in the global crab game, and it would do so without replacing human jobs. The team is quite proud of that. This technology 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 tiring act of precision science to wrestle that sweet treat of crab meat out of its shell.

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