Much More Than Just A Fish

The success of the Icelandic fishing industry is predicated on selling much more than a fish - Iceland’s raw material utilisation is 80% of the landed weight, far in excess of many other marine industries. Photo: Hilmir Berg

When a fish is landed (fished) and processed, what do you think happens? It’s washed, cleaned, often salted and then prepared for export. That much is true, but what else happens? Indeed, does anything else happen? What part of the fish, exactly, is useful? In the case of cod, the useful parts of the fish were largely limited to the fillets and the liver, which was used for cod liver oil.

Cod: The Story Of More From Less
But there is much more to this story. Research from Iceland Ocean Cluster (an industry cooperation body leading the charge) has established that between 1981 and 2011, Icelandic cod landings fell from 460,000 to 180,000 tonnes, a decline of slightly over 60%, while the total export value has increased from $340 to $680 million; in other words, the landed tonnage halved and the value doubled. But how?

Þorskur – Cod

In 1981, 75% of total export value stemmed from frozen fish fillets and whole fish. By 2011, this category accounted for only 23% of total export value. Other values, grew from 25% to 77% of total export value. But what are those “other values”  exactly?

This massive shift has been brought about by new and innovative high technology industries growing around the fishing industry. This increase in export value per landed tonne can be accounted for by the added value from products derived from cod rather than the cod itself; these are the burgeoning industries in the Icelandic fishing sector centred around modernisation of practices, product diversification and innovation towards high value-adding industries and a broad range of applications.

In the past they dried up the fish using shacks as seen in the photo above, today the process has been modernized.

Oil, Heads, Cans, Collagen & Leather
The key concept is: use what was once thrown away. This applies even to the dried head and bones of the fish, the very “lowest value” products, regarded as discard for decades. Now, once landed the heads and bones are hung in Iceland and dried for an extended period of time. Once they are dry (and light) enough, they are taken down and shipped to relatively undernourished parts of the world where these raw materials are rehydrated are used as an inexpensive source of animal protein.

From the very beginning, companies such as Lýsi remain the largest marine processing firms in Iceland, producing cod liver oil. Now, there are a number of companies that are producing high-value-added products from Icelandic fisheries. These include but are not limited to tanned and died fish leather used in the fashion industry, hand and foot creams with omega 3 for arthritics, collagen vitamin supplements and collagen dietary supplements. North taste, a Canadian company manufactures natural flavour enhancers; Ægir Seafood, producing canned liver products of various types. And thats only the tip of the iceberg!

Fish Enzymes & Soft Hands
It all started with a simple observation: some of the people working in the fish processing factories, the people doing the hard work of gutting the fish, had very soft hands given the hard nature of their work. This was because they were handling the guts of the cod (it’s sounds a bit gross, but stay with us here!). This if course meant that there was somethings special about cod guts, something good for the skin and quite possibly something that had even more uses.

In a word: enzymes. The discovery of enzymes in cod has given rise to an entire biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry has grown out of products which used to be thrown away. Andrá produces Cod Doc, Penzim Gel, Penzim Lotion, ZoPure Serum droplets, all of which are products with cosmetic, restorative and medicinal properties relating to joint and muscle ointment, acne treatment and skin moisturisation and the gels, lotions and serums utilise trypsine enzymes derived from Cod intestinal tracts, useful for wound and other skin lesions. Kerecis has developed the unique, patent-pending MariGen Omega 3 fish-skin acellular dermal matrix transplantation technology, where complete acellular fish skin is used for tissue regeneration by transplantation. Zymetech, is another company working on using trypsine enzymes for curative biotech and pharmaceutical applications and sells the enzymes in large scale and white label to those that want to apply them to other uses.

Feel Iceland creates high quality marine collagen from fish skin. A byproduct that used to be thrown away but is now used to create high quality skin care products. Photo: Hilmir Berg

Waste Not, Want Not
This has raised Iceland’s raw material utilisation to 80% of the landed weight, far in excess of many other marine industries. The ocean technology sector is actually growing faster than the traditional fishing industry and much faster than the Icelandic economy as a whole, with a turnover of €414 million turnover in 2012, and has increased by a lot more in the years since.

What’s The Endgame?
The aim is to become nothing less than the “Silicon Valley” of total utilisation. The success of the Icelandic fishing industry is predicated on selling much more than a fish. What started off as a “standard” fishing industry essential to life on the island selling fillets and livers has blossomed into a multi-faceted, high-technology industry industry made up of well-establish players, a range of start-ups, spin-offs, formal and informal collaborations in many different areas. Its an amazing new world, and its moving fast!