A Lobster Tale

June 1, 2004
Sometimes a material handling innovation benefits not only the companies involved, it can improve the lot of an entire industry. In this case, it's a case for lobster shippers.

This is a story of good and bad news. Determining which is which depends on your position at the dinner table. Seafood industry processors and distributors have numerous challenges, including keeping the catch alive until it's time to, well, kill the critters. Here's how one man's efforts changed the way business is done to our benefit in the lobster fishing industry. Lobsters might tell a different tale.

The challenge

Lobster fishers formerly used wooden crates to contain the catch-of-the-day. These crates varied in weight depending on species of wood used and how wet they had become. Wood crates also had a limited life span because of the abuses of saltwater. It was not uncommon to have a wood crate, when filled, weigh as much as 140 pounds. Back and arm injuries plagued the business.

And while the fate of the lobster was predetermined, keeping the catch alive and fresh before it went to market was also a challenge. To determine an accurate tare weight of the container, lobsters had to be handled frequently, creating many opportunities to damage the product.

The innovation

Spiros Tourkakis, president of seafood procurement and marketing executive vice president for East Coast Seafood Inc., says he's constantly looking for ways to improve business in general. He decided to address its biggest problem, namely lobster mortality.

"I thought we could use returnable plastic containers and solve not only the mortality problem, but the tare weight problem as well," says Tourkakis.

Early attempts to design a crate did not work within industry standards. A two-piece design proved unworkable because lids were constantly getting lost. Eventually he approached IPL Products Ltd. and Eric Fredrickson, marketing manager for material handling products.

"It took a solid six months of work," says Fredrickson, "before we developed what eventually was called the IPL FlapNest Live Seafood Container." He notes that IPL worked with East Coast Seafood and other lobstermen to be sure they were designing a container that would meet the needs of everyone, not just a single company.

Tourkakis' vision was to have an industry standard container and thus all would reap the benefits of a reusable container system.

The results

"The thing that made this crate different from others we had tried," says Tourkakis, "was that IPL was willing to listen to us [lobstermen] and to what our needs were, and to take into account our suggestions."

He says a major benefit of the new crate is that it offers a consistent tare weight of 16 pounds. This means that lobsters do not have to be loaded and unloaded to get the accurate weight of the shipment, and thus more survive, increasing the profits of the lobstermen and distributors.

"Another primary benefit of the new crate," says Tourkakis, "is that it floats."

Additional benefits include the stackability of the crates for return. "The crates nest and you can ship many of them in a limited space when returning them from the distributor to the lobsterman," he explains.

The interlocking lid design and molded-in handles make the crates easier to close and lift. Also, since water can circulate more easily through the container, lobsters live longer.

The 29-gallon container most often contains 100 pounds of live lobster for transfer from boat to shore to market. Because of the buoyancy designed into the collar of the crate, it will float even in open water with the lid opened. Lobsters remain submerged throughout the shipping process.

The lighter-weight containers allow shippers to put larger loads on trucks, saving on shipping costs. MHM


• IPL Products Ltd., www.ipl-plastics.com

• East Coast Seafood Inc., www.eastcoastseafood.com

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