A Circular Economy for Fish? These Icelandic Companies Have a Plan. | Civil Eats

A Circular Economy for Fish? These Icelandic Companies Have a Plan.

The 100% Fish project develops products from previously discarded parts of Atlantic cod. The no-waste model has spread to the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Fish leather made from 100 percent lake fish. (Photo credit: David Nafzger)

The slippery, scaly skin of the Atlantic Cod is usually thrown out when the fish is harvested. But in a remote settlement on Iceland’s northwestern coast, a group of scientists is turning fish skin into human skin grafts.

Founded in 2007, the Icelandic company Kerecis has developed fish-skin soft-tissue regeneration products that can be used to protect the body’s tissues and create an environment that facilitates tissue regeneration. Kerecis has transformed the lives of many people with persistent injuries, enabling burn victims from the wildfires in Maui and California and a 2019 volcanic eruption in New Zealand to heal and generate new skin.

In addition to supporting burn victims, the Icelandic company is part of a larger transformation of the fishing industry, an effort to cut down on waste by using a larger percentage of the fish that are grown and caught there. As part of its management of a sustainable fishery, Iceland enforces strict quotas, and so Icelandic fishermen, limited in how many fish they can harvest in a year, have had to innovate to find profits from a smaller quantity of fish.

The Iceland Ocean Cluster—of which Kerecis is a part—is a collection of marine-focused startups operating out of Reykjavik, founded in 2011 by entrepreneur Thor Sigfússon. One of the founding principles at Iceland Ocean Cluster is the 100% Fish Project, which aims to create high-value products—like supplements and medical and design products—out of previously wasted parts of the Atlantic Cod. In Iceland, over 237,269 tons of cod was harvested in 2022, giving companies like Kerecis plenty of material to work with.

Thor Sigufsson

Thor Sigufsson (Photo courtesy of Iceland Ocean Cluster)

Throughout human history, every part of the fish has been used—Indigenous tribes still embrace the use of the entire fish. But in modern industrial fishing, 20 to 80 percent of fish harvested worldwide is wasted during the harvesting process.

Fishing boats throw bycatch fish overboard, but they often do not survive, and processing plants sometimes discard everything besides the filets—from skin and bones to blood and guts.

The global industrial fishing industry wastes more than 10 million metric tons of fish proteins and byproducts every year, according to Sigfússon. And disposal of large quantities of fish waste leads to the introduction of disease, unpleasant smells, and pollution that damages existing fisheries.

Sigfússon’s vision for the 100% Fish project does not end on the coastlines of Iceland, however. His book The New Fish Wave: How to Ignite the Seafood Industry, released in 2020, explained the premise and success of the Iceland Ocean Cluster Project, and he has promoted the project at speaking events around the world in the intervening years.

Some entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and fishermen have been intrigued and have found the model of the ocean cluster to be highly exportable.

Since the establishment of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, Sigfússon has been involved in the creation of similar clusters in Connecticut, New York, Alaska, Maine, and the Great Lakes region, as well as in Denmark and Namibia. All of these marine clusters foster small businesses that are leading innovation, promoting economic development on the waterfront and prioritizing the reduction of waste in the fishing industry.

Fish liver has long been a valuable source of Omega fish oil, Sigfússon says. Before he started the first cluster, Icelanders were drying fish heads and exporting them to Africa for high prices to be used in traditional fish soup recipes. “From there, we started to work on the skin—so we started to make fish leather,” he said. “The fish skin then through our projects is developed into collagen, which is a protein good for the joints and the skin. One of our biggest businesses in Iceland is collagen and the products coming from collagen.”

Kerecis scientists have discovered that fish skin’s properties make it an ideal complement to human skin. “Fish skin is homologous to human skin,” explains a press release from Kerecis. “When applied to the human body, the fish skin provides the ideal environment for the body to recruit its own cells in the regeneration process.” Because there is no known disease transfer risk between Atlantic cod and humans, the release explains, the Kerecis fish skin only has to be gently processed, and it retains its similarity to human tissue.

The project does not stop with fish, Sigfússon points out. “We have quite a long history in developing products from the so-called waste from the prawn industry.”

Even though zero-waste projects have gained popularity in recent years, there are challenges to taking the 100% Fish project international, Sigfússon says.

“Here in Iceland, we are lucky that fishermen have been really open to all these innovations,” Sigfússon continues. “Still, so many fishermen around the world that I talk to say, ‘We need to catch more.’ We are actually saying you can catch less and create more value.”

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Bringing the Vision to the Great Lakes Region

David Nafzger, the executive director of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers, collaborates with political leaders in the U.S. states and Canada provinces that border the Great Lakes to protect the freshwater bodies and grow the region’s $6 trillion economy. The group has recently adopted the 100% Fish program.

“I visited the Iceland Ocean Cluster, and we were just amazed with the fish leather lamps and all the products on the table,” says Nafzger, sporting a stylish fish leather belt that, to the uninformed eye, is indistinguishable from traditional leather. “Talking with Thor was really inspiring in terms of the success that they’ve generated in Iceland.”

The Icelandic Ocean Cluster’s zero-waste model

Some states and provinces involved in the Great Lakes Ocean Cluster have robust fishing industries while others have smaller lake borders. Nevertheless, Nafzger says they are equally invested in the program.

“We created a 100% Fish pledge and invited companies involved in the fishing industry to sign on,” he says. “This is a commitment that they’re taking voluntarily to use 100 percent of the fish productively by 2025.” They have already had more than 20 companies sign the pledge, which Nafzger says represents the lion’s share of the fishing industry around the lakes.

In addition to the leaders of the states and provinces, Nafzger also works with the Indigenous communities in the region, whose tribal fisheries have embraced the project and suggested new fish species for Nafzger’s team to study uses for.

“The focus in Iceland has been almost exclusively on cod,” says Nafzger. “Here we see product diversification as a real opportunity to maximize the value of every white fish that is taken, but we also look at other species and ways to generate more value and employment through the fishery as a whole.”

The collaborators have found new applications for by-products from species including white fish, walleye, perch, lake trout, and white sucker. They have created prototypes for multiple collagen products as well as fish leather from multiple species.”

The 100% Fish Project in the Great Lakes region is still young, with the official collaboration beginning in 2022. According to their press releases, the group believes that the value of a single fish can be raised from $12 to $3,500 by creating new products from parts currently wasted.

“Our ultimate goal is a more sustainable fishery, more economic activity around the fishery, and more employment in rural economies,” Nafzger says.

In New England, Expanding the Effort

On the rocky coast of the Atlantic in Portland, Maine, the New England Ocean Cluster has also embraced both the 100% Fish Project and Sigfússon’s model. Founded in 2014, the New England group’s is the oldest cluster outside of Iceland.

Patrick Arnold, who worked as the director of operations for the Maine Port Authority before founding the cluster, met Sigfússon after seeing him speak on marine economies. “He approached me,” Arnold remembers, “and he said, ‘Hey, this is simple. Patrick, we can just sign a paper and partner and do this in the United States.’ And that’s what we did.”

A lobster boat in Maine’s Boothbay Harbor. (Photo by Chris Cary)

At their cooperative office space “the Hùs” in Portland, the New England Ocean Cluster hosts blue economy businesses from around the world. Some provide business solutions, like Ocean Farmr, a company out of Australia that offers financial technology for aquaculture, and some provide adjacent services like Maine Standard Biofuels, a homegrown company that uses plant oils and grease to create diesel fuel. The start-up environment helps international companies gain a foothold in the United States, helps to fund local ocean-based research, and incubates new business ideas.

The leadership at New England Ocean Cluster is also quick to reiterate that 100% Fish is a return to some of the oldest and most traditional ways of fishing. “Talking about zero waste or a circular economy should not be a net new thing,” Arnold says. “We are not bashful in saying that, because if we just focus on Ocean Cluster and 100% Fish, it misses the ancient history of the seafaring cultures on the coast of Peru, [where they] are fully utilizing their ocean species, or the same in Asia, or just about everywhere in the world. There’s a lot for us to learn from Indigenous cultures.”

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Arnold points out that with lobster, Maine has a monoculture of sorts. The cluster’s flagship company is Marin Skin Care, started by Amber Boutiette and Patrick Breeding. The two were graduate students at the University of Maine studying biomedical engineering when their professor, Dr. Bob Bayer, introduced them to a glycoprotein in lobsters that helps the marine crustaceans to heal wounds and regenerate their signature claws.

The lobster glycoprotein is part of the invertebrate’s circulatory fluids and is usually flushed away when the creature is harvested. Today, Marin Skin Care uses that glycoprotein to create a skin product that soothes eczema and irritated skin.

Lobstering in Maine's Tenants Harbor. (Photo by Chris Cary)

Harvesting lobsters with Luke’s Lobster in Tenants Harbor, Maine. Luke’s Lobster works with Marin Skincare, collecting waste lobster fluid during processing for use in making skincare products. (Photo by Chris Cary)

The New England cluster has found ways to work with several ground fish and shellfish species, including oysters and mussels, as well as lobster. It has also expanded beyond aquatic life, says Chris Cary, the cluster’s chief operating officer.

“It is far, far more inclusive than 100% Fish because there are things that aren’t even biogenic that are being used with the same mindset, like old fishing gear being upcycled, ocean plastics being upcycled,” Cary says. In fact, he says, “I think that should be a part of the 100% Fish project.”

Two examples of the expanded vision are Opolis Optics, which turns ocean plastics into ski goggles and sunglasses, and Rugged Seas, which transforms shoreman’s bib overalls into tote bags.

Though the global cluster projects have only made a small dent in the spectacular waste of the world’s fishing industries, Sigfússon is hopeful that in a few short years, they will take a large chunk out of global waste. “We have an opportunity to create value from hopefully two to three million metric tons in the coming five years,” he says. “It’s a big challenge.”

While the project might be too big for one country, company, or community to address, Sigfússon hopes that the combined efforts of many small and mid-sized entities can start moving the global fishing industry closer to the ultimate goal of once again using the entire fish.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is a freelance writer focused on climate change, sustainability, modern agriculture, and rural lifestyles. She is the author of two books on homesteading and lives in rural Maine with her husband and many animals on a restored farm. More of her work can be found at hostilevalleyliving.com and on Instagram. Read more >

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