By Tom Peters

French container line CMA CGM is one of the latest companies to introduce specialized marine shipping containers to transport live lobster. The shipping line has developed AQUAVIVA, a new line of containers that employs the technology called INNOPURE, developed by the French firm EMYG Environment & Aquaculture. The containers were launched at Halifax Port Days in September.

The 20-foot containers, which house various pumps and other support equipment in the front portion, can hold hundreds of lobsters in individual, circular styrofoam compartments in the back portion of the container. The packing design resembles a honeycomb inside a beehive. The lobsters are kept in water at a temperature of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius.

Remi Samad, General Manager, CMA CGM (Canada) Inc., said his company has been developing the container over the past four years in cooperation with EMYG. Samad said the technology developed by EMYG is new and is based “on natural life conditions replicating the characteristics of the marine environment.” The CMA CGM project has been ongoing for the past four years and the present container is the fourth prototype.

The idea of moving live lobster in marine containers is not new. Experimentation in this type of live lobster transport goes back at least 20 years in Nova Scotia but nothing concrete ever came of it. Around 2009, Maersk Shipping Line teamed with Danish Company Aqualife to develop a container to transport live lobster. Shipments began in 2010 between Nova Scotia and Europe but the venture was not feasible. Industry sources indicated that Aqualife’s technology didn’t work properly, and there were problems with ammonia levels in the tanks which led to initial or subsequent lobster mortality. The company said in a recent email that, “Aqualife is still in business but currently undergoing structural changes.” Further to this, a statement on the company’s website said, “Aqualife has submitted its Annual Statement as per the Danish Company Act. The Company is technically insolvent and only has limited income, which cannot sustain the day-to-day operation.” The company said it has sold its subsidiary, Aqualife Solutions ApS, to one of the company’s largest creditors and loan providers, who had security in the shares of Aqualife Solutions ApS.

“The company will continue to operate to find new business for its equipment and will attempt to slowly pay any remaining creditors to the best extent possible,” the statement said. Aqualife had secured over a $1 million combined investment from both the federal and Nova Scotia governments.

Presently, there are two Nova Scotia companies chasing a similar concept. Bionovations of Antigonish, which has received $441,000 of federal project funding, created a special holding crate it calls Traystor which it says can be used to ship live lobster or snow crab by land, rail or ocean. Live Ship Logistics of North Sydney says it plans to test and use these units.

AQUAVIVA has caught the attention of at least one Nova Scotia lobster exporter. Stewart Lamont, Managing Director, Tangier Lobster Company, said he is “fascinated by the concept,” and has one of the containers at his company and plans to do some trials. He said he has divided this project into two concepts: the operational side and the business model. The operational side, he said, is about whether the lobsters will live and be transported successfully on a 14 day trip to Europe or a 30 to 40 day trip to Asia.

If the operational side looks promising after trials, then Lamont will look at the business model which could be challenging, he said. Exporters of live lobster have a number of effective airlift options out of Halifax, and air freight rates are down considerably largely in part to lower fuel costs. In addition, airlift enables lobsters to be in the hands of their customers in Europe and Asia in a matter of hours, as opposed to one to four weeks by sea. There is also the challenge of dealing with fluctuating lobster prices which could change while the lobsters are in transit.

“Price would be a challenge and I don’t know how we would deal with that. It would have to be on a transaction by transaction basis,” he said. “Asia is awkward because we are frequently prepaid or we frequently give 15-to-21 day credit terms so the client would have to pay before the shipment arrived, so I see complications,” he said. However, he is optimistic financial arrangements could be worked out.