ELLSWORTH — A giant Canadian lobster dealer has come up with the proverbial better mousetrap.
Early this month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Clearwater Seafoods Limited of Bedford, Nova Scotia, for a camera-based imaging system that will, the company claims, let it determine the stage in the molting process and the approximate meat yield of a lobster held in storage.
The system, which includes both hardware and software, can be used to grade lobsters as they move along a conveyor belt in a processing facility.
According to the patent documents, the Clearwater system incorporates a camera that photographs the lobster using a combination of visible, infrared and ultraviolet light. By comparing the patterns established with these images, the software can determine a lobster’s molt stage.
Determining how far along a lobster is between molts helps the processor to determine which lobsters are most suitable for shipping or storage and better “assess anticipated mortality rates” of lobsters throughout grading and processing.
Clearwater claims that its new system will also help determine just how much meat each lobster will yield.
Generally, lobsters with hard shells are assumed to yield more meat than lobsters with softer shells, but that isn’t always the case. Shell hardness is “unreliable as a means to determine meat yields,” according to the patent documents and is “difficult to implement as a non-invasive measure on a production line.”
Processors have used both blood protein analysis and “pleopod staging” involving examination of the swimmerets beneath a lobster’s tail in an effort to determine meat yields, but both methods are invasive and, ultimately, inaccurate.
Other tests, such as ultrasound or X-ray scans, can be unreliable, or are difficult to implement, according to Clearwater’s patent filings.
The new patent covers both the camera system and the software that uses images from the camera to predict molt stage and can be used to examine shipments coming into a processing facility as well as lobsters in storage. The system can also be used as a standalone application on a smartphone.
Clearwater is one of Canada’s largest seafood companies and, according to its website, “the largest holder of shellfish licenses in Canada.” The company harvests, process and sells a broad line of fresh and frozen seafood products including lobster harvested in Maine and Canada, langoustine (Norwegian lobster), snow crab, northern shrimp, sea scallops and clams.
The company has processing facilities in both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and maintains a fleet of nearly a dozen factory freezer ships devoted primarily to harvesting and processing scallops landed off Canada and Argentina.
In September, Clearwater reported sales in excess of $607 million (Canadian).