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The rise of the seafood robots

Laine Welch
09 July 2017, at 9:47am

Robots are cutting up snow crabs in Canada, a sign of things to come in the seafood processing industry.

Overall, seafood processing has a relatively small robotic involvement compared to other sectors. Robots have yet to make it into any of Alaska’s 176 fish processing shops, but the lure of reduced production costs, increased fish quality and crews of worker-bots is turning the tide.    

The CBC reports that the world’s first crab plant robot began work this spring in a plastic chamber about the size of a shipping container in remote Newfoundland. The robot receives crabs on a conveyor belt and quickly dismembers each with a buzzing blade. The crab legs then tumble into a tub below, all sorted, sectioned and ready to go.

Another robot in the works will soon shuck all the meat from the crab for a better financial return.   

“Instead of sending our crab out as sections with the meat in the shell, we thought we could attract a higher price if we sold the meat instead,” said Bob Verge, director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation where the crab cutting robots were created.     

The meat extraction used to be done by hand in Newfoundland plants, but years ago that job shifted to China where the labor is cheaper. 

Bringing that step back to Newfoundland, Verge said, would make more money for plant operators and get more value from the resource.          

And for the first time robots also are deboning and filleting cod on Norwegian processing lines. New Atlas reports that a machine called APRICOT (automatic pin-bone removal in cod and whitefish) is using x-ray technology to locate the tiny pin bones in the fish and neatly trim them away using water jets.

“Unlike farmed salmon, which are similar in size and shape and therefore suitable for automated machine filleting, the variability of wild-caught white fish such as cod has kept filleting of these fish a manual affair,” said a spokesman for Marel of Iceland, the world’s biggest fish processing equipment manufacturer.

The APRICOT robot system is expected to be ready for commercial use by year’s end. As the US seafood industry becomes more reliant on products from aquaculture, equipment makers are designing machines for processing those more predictable fish.      

Complete lines are now operating, for example, where whole farmed salmon enter at one end and portions ready-packed for supermarkets leave at the other. Norwegian processor Nordlaks described the Marel-made system as “a seamless flow of salmon portions without manual handling.”

“A robot places the fish pieces directly into the packaging and the system reduces labor costs by up to 20 percent,” a spokesman said.

Robot makers say they are hoping their machines will help solve workforce problems in fish plants caused by changing demographics and global markets, and labor shortages. In the near future, they predict more highly skilled humans will work on sophisticated machines and computers, and not on the slime lines.         

“If we are going to attract young people we need better jobs, not more jobs” said the crab robot’s Bob Verge. “We have to offer them a better deal. We’ve already demonstrated this technology to young people and they are very impressed with it. They say I’d like to do this.”

Robots also are making inroads into the big freezers that hold the bulk of Alaska’s seafood before it goes to markets. A Netherlands company called NewCold has partnered with Trident Seafoods to build one of the nation’s biggest cold storage warehouses outside of Tacoma. WA. The companies call it “a solution for increased labor, land and energy costs.”

Seafood products will be stored on a robot-run system of tiered trollies and racks in low oxygen and in pitch dark, and then transported to the loading area by conveyors and worker-bots.

When the $50 million project is completed at year’s end, it will have storage capacity of more than 25 million cubic feet. 

As the US seafood industry becomes more reliant on products from aquaculture, equipment makers are designing machines for processing those more predictable fish.

Fishing updates

Alaska’s salmon catch by July 7 was nearing 32 million fish on its way to a forecast of 204 million, with fishing in many regions just getting serious.  

Fully half of the harvest so far is sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, where buyers were struggling to keep pace with the surge of fish and most boats were on limits.  

In other fisheries: low catches mean Southeast’s summer Dungeness crab fishery will close July 25, an unprecedented three weeks earlier than usual.   

Alaska’s first red king crab fishery for the year is underway at Norton Sound with a 400,000 pound limit.     

Shrimp fisheries closed in Prince William Sound last week but opened in parts of Southeast, and lingcod fisheries are now open in both regions.     

Scallop fisheries opened July 1 at Yakutat, Prince William Sound, Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, Dutch Harbor, and a portion of Bristol Bay.  Cook Inlet will open to scalloping in mid-August, for a combined Alaska catch of 306,000 pounds of shucked meats.   

Fishing for pollock, cod and other whitefish is ongoing in the Bering Sea; the Gulf reopens to pollock on August 25.

Halibut fishermen are about half way to their 18-million-pound catch limit. Kodiak is leading all ports for halibut deliveries followed by Seward and Petersburg; Homer had yet to top one million pounds.       

Seward and Sitka are the leaders for sablefish landings, each at well over two million pounds. Fishermen have pulled up 53 percent of the 22.5 million pound catch quota.

Stories help salmon

Stand for Salmon is calling for photos and stories depicting the role salmon plays in Alaskans’ lives. The grass roots group is working to change salmon habitat laws that haven’t been updated since statehood in 1959, and believes a contest will help spread the word. 

“It’s always exciting to see where people fish, how they fish, how their families are impacted, how they cook and smoke their fish - the list goes on.  I think photo contests like this give us a great opportunity to work with Alaskans and learn why salmon matter to them,” said SFS spokesman Samuel Snyder.

Contest deadline is August 31. Learn more at www.standforsalmon.org and on Facebook.