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


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

There is big money crab, but we’re not maximally cashing in on it. There was a time when we sold canned and frozen crab meats into global markets that were hungry for it, but our costs to produce those products yielded a product that is not competitively priced for today’s global market, rendering our venture unviable.

Since being forced out of the global marketplace for extracted crab meat, we’ve resorted to selling only crab “sections,” in other words, instead of extracting the crab meat, we sell halved crabs (the claws and legs, as pictured above), into two markets: the US and China.

The US  get the more attractive and retail-friendly sections, for sale in food stores and restaurants, where meat extraction is done by chefs, delis, or consumers. China get the less attractive (slightly broken or barnacle-covered) crab, where they extract the meat in plants, and re-export into other markets, mainly Japan, but also Europe and the US.

Cracking back into the crab market with frozen/canned products in today’s marketplace would require some truly futuristic, brilliant, and innovative work in robotic automation. That brilliant work has been done, was years in the making, and is groundbreaking on a global scale.

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 forces of both the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) and the Marine Institute’s Centre for Aquaculture and Seafood Development (CASD), raised the money, and managed the project.

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, and see the robo-butcher 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 a practical way; properly extracting crab meat by hand is extremely arduous, and the Chinese plants that do it use tweezers under UV light to do it tediously correct. So this tech would not be replacing real live human jobs, as there really aren’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, because it’s definitely an 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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