Plastic crates land lobsters and shellfish

February 3, 2014

4 Min Read
Plastic crates land lobsters and shellfish

Above, a fresh catch of crab is shown in a 16-lb plastic crate. Below, the plastic crates allow water to enter through vertical openings.

Wooden creates have a long history of use within the shellfish industry, but that could be changing. Seafood processors and wholesalers are "buying into" returnable plastic crates and are reaping the benefits with this new distribution mode for the industry. Portland Shellfish began using IPL's FlapNest™ live seafood crates in 2000. Today, the company uses the polypropylene plastic crates to process its lobsters and crabs. The catch is transferred to the plastic crates at the docks and then brought to the company's holding tank, where they are processed.

"The plastic crates are so much easier to handle and open," explains Jeff Holden, president of Portland Shellfish, a processor in South Portland, MN. "The covers are easy to open, and the crates are lightweight. And, the crabs and lobster live longer in them because the circulation is much better than in wooden crates." The crate is the first plastic container developed specifically for handling live American lobster, PD is informed.

IPL, Inc. is a North American producer of molded plastic products. The company manufactures and designs packaging containers and crates for the agrifood, chemical and forest product industries, among others. Plastic containers and crates are produced by extrusion or injected-molding methods.

Nice catch
Once a catch is loaded into the crates, it stays there. The plastic crates don't absorb water like wood, thus they have a consistent tare weight of 16 lb. "It saves us the step of having to weigh the crates out and helps the mortality rate of the shellfish, too," explains Holden. After the shellfish is delivered to customers, the containers are shipped back to Portland Shellfish at a 2.5:1 return ratio. The empty crates are nested within each other, which means they occupy less space and reduce shipping weight, providing savings in return distribution, PD is told. "The crates stack easily when collapsed, and they're easy to clean," Holden says.

Although the crates were initially marketed to the lobster industry, Holden believes they offer many advantages to wholesalers and processors of crab and other shellfish.

The crates provide uniform stacking in the hold area.

"Companies used the plastic crates for lobster first because they're valued more than crab. But, eventually, we saw that the crates had benefits for all of our shellfish, and we switched over completely from wood," says Holden.

Many fish in the sea
With numerous fish in the sea, IPL would like to see many different types of shellfish in its plastic crate. IPL's mission is to interest other handlers of lobster, crab and other shellfish in its plastic containers, and possibly to develop custom crates for a specific type of operation. The William Atwood Lobster Co. is another company using the plastic seafood crates. The company, which has the biggest shipping facility in Maine, sells more than 6 million lb of lobster each year, PD is informed. William Atwood also uses the crates for the Jonah crabs it catches. The wooden crates used by the company four years ago weighed 140 lb when full. Because the plastic crates do not absorb water, they weigh only 116 lb when full. "The number of arm and back injuries has been reduced substantially since we switched to the plastic containers," says Bill McGonagle, chief operating officer of William Atwood.

The reduced weight also makes more room in Atwood's tank, which has a holding capacity of more than 200,000 lb. "Sometimes during the busy season, we get to full capacity. We can get more catch in our tank because the plastic crate's size is taking up less volume," says McGonagle. The plastic crates can contain up to 100 lb of live shellfish–16 lb for the plastic crate–for transport from boat to pond. The crate is the same length and width, and has the same capacity as current wood crates for full compatibility. Buoyancy in the collar of the crate allows it to float with the lid open or closed, so shellfish remain submerged while the crate stays afloat. Cover security features permit crates to be floated even in rough seas.

William Atwood uses 4,000 plastic crates to catch, clean, sort and hold live shellfish–mainly lobster. The lobsters remain in the submerged crates from catch to the tank. After two days in the tank, they're sorted, graded and placed in color-coded crates according to grade. "Keeping the catch submerged at all times and alive is critical, says McGonagle, my customers don't buy dead lobsters."

More information is available:

Plastic crates: IPL, Inc., 800/818-1318. Circle No. 223.

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