Plans taking shape at lobster research centre

    Marine Research Centre Laboratory Technician Victoria Tobin checks a blood sample from a lobster.

    PETIT DE GRAT: With funding on the way for research and facility upgrades, plans are being made at the Petit de Grat campus of Université Sainte-Anne.

    In a Facebook post on June 3, the Lobster Quality Research and Innovation Centre confirmed that it was approved for funding to conduct lobster research and undertake lab upgrades.

    Marine Research Centre Director Michelle Theriault told The Reporter they are working on identifying the best practices for handling and holding lobster which have a big impact on quality.

    “Some of the practices that we promote, are based not necessarily on testing or research, it’s based on standard industry practice that we’ve been doing a long time,” she noted. “What we’re trying to do is take those practices and test them in the lab to validate them, to make sure they are the best way to handle lobster and to hold lobster… There’s a lot of other things that we don’t know what the best way to do it is, and so those ones we’re going to be testing from scratch.”

    Theriault said they are trying to mimic test conditions, including the transport of lobsters in Styrofoam containers.

    “One of the tests that we’re planning to do is set up an experimental box pack and put sensors inside, and then to see what is actually happening inside that box when it’s shipped,” Theriault said. “We put in wet pads to keep humidity, and we put in a dry pad to make sure there is not too much water in the box. We put in ice packs to keep the temperature in the right range. But what is actually happening in the box when the lobsters are shipped 20, 30, 40 and 50 hours even in all kinds of extreme environmental conditions?”

    To test the impact of environmental conditions on the lobster, Theriault said blood is a great indicator.

    “We can do different blood tests to determine what the stress level of that lobster is while it’s in that box under those conditions,” she explained. “If something happens and the temperature goes out of range, we can test the impact of that on the lobster’s stress level. We’re also looking at what happens in that box if it runs out of oxygen, what impact does that have on the lobster? Does the lobster start to run out of oxygen and start of suffocate, and we can measure for those things in its blood as well.”

    Not just environmental conditions, Theriault said they are also studying how the length of time lobsters are stored and shipped impact their condition.

    “Right now when crates are landed at the wharf, they go into the back of a truck, sometimes that truck is refrigerated, and then it’s shipped to a holding facility that could be half an hour away, but it could also be several hours away,” she said. “What’s happening to that lobster while it’s in transit, or while it’s sitting on the wharf for that period of time?”

    Theriault said this allows them to apply what they’ve learned about lobster physiology to industry practices.

    “The whole goal of it is to try and figure out the least stressful way to doing the things we do with lobster,” she stated. “You can use blood protein levels, shell hardness, where the lobster is at in its moult stage; physically is it strong, is it weak? Those are all the kinds of things that we use to determine quality or condition of the lobster.”

    In addition to quality testing, however, Theriault said they also use stress testing.

    “There are other blood tests that we can do for lactic acid, or for glucose, and for ammonia; test the pH of the blood. Those are all indications of that lobster being under stressful conditions,” she explained.

    Theriault said researchers are also trying to find health and medical equipment used by people or animals that can be applied to lobster providing more valuable data.

    As for the lab upgrades, Theriault said the overall goal is to make the space more multi-functional and user-friendly.

    “If there are different projects running… that somebody could come in and work on one, and it be separate from the work that’s happening in another area,” she said. “Our goal with the well and some of these basic things is to have a building and a structure that’s well organized and has a lot of amenities so that it can accommodate almost any type of project.”

    On February 26, 2020 the provincial government announced the new $2.5 million Lobster Quality Research and Innovation Centre based at Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point, which was tasked with finding new ways to advance the quality and export value of lobster.

    With hopes of attracting a world-class research team, the province said at the time that the new centre would work closely with the university’s existing Marine Research Centre in Petit de Grat to support innovation in the lobster industry.

    Kenneth Deveau, vice-president, academic and research with Université Sainte-Anne, said at the time that the Isle Madame facility would be the “main centre” for the project.

    Part of the project involves a high-end research lab staffed by cutting-edge researchers who will work closely with the Marine Research Centre and make use of their wet lab and access to ocean water in Petit de Grat, Deveau noted.

    Areas of focus include live lobster quality, handling and holding practices, storage and shipping and new technologies for grading. It will be guided by an advisory committee of industry and government representatives.

    A three-year budget of about $2.5 million was used for personnel ($525,000 for a research lead and laboratory technicians), lab equipment ($1.6 million), and operating costs ($282,000).

    Dan Lane, Interim Director of the Lobster Quality Research and Innovation Centre, said a new salt water well for the Marine Research Centre lab, through the Building Tomorrow Fund, is scheduled to be installed at the end of the summer.

    Also part of the funding is a communication strategy, which includes the development of a web site and a social media presence.

    “A large part of that communication is also communication with the industry; so harvesters, processers, exporters, buyers, all of those are part of our overall industry sector in Nova Scotia, in addition to the public,” Lane noted.

    Lane said what sets apart the Centre is its level of commitment and engagement with the industry, with strong support from Université Sainte-Anne. He said Theriault has formed great relationships with the fishing industry.

    “We’ve got the research component, we’ve got Michelle and her teaching component, around handling and holding, and we’ve got brand certification, those are the three elements of the Centre,” Lane said.

    Lane added that long-term plans for the Marine Research Centre are to make it a fisheries innovation hub.

    “It’s always been an open space to invite industry to come in and to test things,” Lane said. “The idea of using the lab as a place where the entire province as an industry – and especially lobster, or crab, or invertebrates in particular – could be seen as welcoming to come and say, ‘you want to test out a new innovation, a new product, come and use our lab, we’ll help you and we’ll sit down and go through it with you.’”