By Keith Norbury

It sounds like a win-win concept. Pack live Canadian shellfish – lobsters, crabs, mussels and more – into specially designed tanks inside 40-foot containers and transport them by ocean to Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Theoretically, the cost would be fraction of shipping live shellfish by air, and enable much larger volumes to reach those distant markets. That was the hope of Denmark-based Aqualife Inc. and its partner Maersk Lines, when they embarked on the venture three years ago.

But it’s been about a year since Aqualife has shipped any seafood, said Gordon Neal, CEO of Aqualife North America Inc. That’s because the parent company, which is publicly traded on the Danish stock exchange, has run into financial difficulties, which Mr. Neal linked with the overall economic stagnation in Europe. “They are continuing to try to recapitalize the company and so far they’ve been unsuccessful,” Mr. Neal said. “So operationally for the moment, the company’s not really doing much of anything.” That’s despite investing an estimated $15 million in the technology and aquaports in the Nova Scotia and the Netherlands, where the shellfish would be loaded and unloaded. Mr. Neal himself has invested heavily in Aqualife North America Inc., which is half owned by the parent company.

The technology and its patents are jointly owned by Aqualife and Maersk Lines. “Maersk owns what I’ll call the rolling stock, so the containers and the tanks that go on them,” Mr. Neal said. “Aqualife owns the aquaports that have been constructed to facilitate the cleaning of the water and prepping the animals for transport.” The animals are placed in tanks, complete with oxygenation and filtration systems, that fit 20 at a time into a 40-foot container. Each tank can hold up 300 kilograms of seafood, for a total capacity of 6,000 kilograms per container.

From early 2011 to early 2012, Aqualife shipped about 35 to 40 containers across the Atlantic, which proved the technology worked, Mr. Neal said. “The issue has never really been about whether the technology works or doesn’t work,” Mr. Neal said. “The issues have been about being able to viably carry on operations.”

Greg Sheaves, owner of Absolute International Logistics in Dartmouth, said his former company, Atlantica Worldwide Logistics, shipped about 20 containers of lobsters by Aqualife with great success. Mortality was only 0.03 per cent, he said. “So in a full container that might be six dead lobster. You’d lose that overnight in a lobster pound.” However, it has been more than a year since he has used Aqualife, “which is a shame, because it’s a great system, and it works.”

Some shipments were reportedly subject to higher than expected mortality rates, which suggests that lower levels of lobster loadings might be necessary to achieve consistently high levels of survival rates. However, lower loading levels would impact the financial performance of the system. Accordingly, the system might need re-engineering to achieve lower operating cost levels.

Mr. Neal said the system did have some problems with high mortality early on during its initial testing. “But, in general, we’ve demonstrated that the technology works,” Mr. Neal said. “That’s not at issue and, in fact, we’ve had just an immense number of people interested in using this service or the technology to facilitate movement of things.”

The Atlantic Veterinary College Lobster Science Centre at the University of Prince Edward in Charlottetown conducted a study of the system in 2011. However, attempts to obtain a copy of the study’s report were not successful, despite $85,287 of its $106,608 cost being financed by a federal government grant. That grant money was Community Adjustment Fund’s $8 billion Lobster Initiative, part of the federal government’s recent Economic Action Plan. Aqualife and the Lobster Council of Canada commissioned the study. Its lead researcher Jean Lavallée, who now runs a private consulting firm, said he could not comment on the study and referred inquiries to Mr. Neal and to Geoff Irvine, Executive Director of the Lobster Council. Neither of them responded to requests from Canadian Sailings for copies of that report, even though Mr. Neal said it is publicly available. Mr. Neal did, however, say that the report confirmed that Aqualife works. “It was to determine how the system performed in moving lobster over in various biomasses and various densities within the tank over varying time durations,” Mr. Neal said in explaining the study’s purpose. “By and large, it was a success, and by and large, the data showed that the system was at least as effective – and perhaps more so – than using air freight.”

Mr. Irvine had a much fuzzier recollection of the study. But, with a bit of reflection, he did recall that the study itself encountered glitches. “Some of the data got screwed up, now I’m just remembering,” he said. “So the study didn’t really provide the support for the program like we hoped. But it was mostly because of some science that went awry. It wasn’t because of the system. The system’s been working.”

Attempts to reach a Maersk official knowledgeable about Aqualife by deadline were not successful. David Pawlan had been in charge of the Aqualife program for Maersk. However, he is longer with Maersk, having become Vice-President of Aqualife North America. Now based in Seattle, Mr. Pawlan is continuing to test the system in the hopes that it can be used eventually to ship shellfish, such as Dungeness crabs, from the Pacific Coast to Asia. He also hopes to use the system to export sea cucumber and farm-raised sturgeon from B.C. Aqualife has already successfully transported sturgeon from Germany to Abu Dhabi. “The technology is very sound, it’s a matter of determining which products are capable of benefitting from the technology,” Mr. Pawlan said.

One issue with shellfish in North America is that many species originated in warmer waters in the Mediterranean and Asia. So they may not be well-suited to Aqualife, which relies on reducing the water temperature to just a few degrees above freezing

“That’s one technology hurdle which we think we’re overcoming, but there’s a lot of research that has to be done in that,” Mr. Pawlan said. “But other cold water species like lobsters and crab and things like Dungeness crab are absolutely fine, they do well in the Aqualife tanks.” Both he and Mr. Neal remain optimistic that Aqualife can be resurrected and meet its potential. “It’s not dead and buried yet,” Mr. Neal said. “It’s pretty much in limbo right now.”