Notes from Iceland: How the blue economy can drive value and cut waste

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Full carcass utilisation can drive innovation in seafood, Iceland shows us how / Pic: GettyImages OKRAD
Full carcass utilisation can drive innovation in seafood, Iceland shows us how / Pic: GettyImages OKRAD

Related tags Blue economy Seafood Fish

Iceland is forging a model for the ‘blue economy’ that has driven down waste and enhanced the value of fish. Supported by a vibrant innovation ecosystem, the seafood sector is working towards a zero-waste model that is better for both business and the planet.

The marine environment is an important source of raw material for the global food sector. But the seafood industry is blighted by high levels of waste. Currently in Europe, only 50-60% of every fish caught is used. The rest is discarded.

This is clearly an economic and moral failure in a world where fish stocks and marine ecosystems are under immense pressure from human activity. Nearly 80% of the world's fisheries are already fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Further pressure on fish stocks is likely as demand continues to rise. Already global fish consumption has nearly doubled since 1998 and researchers from Stanford University predict that we are likely to see a further 80% increase by 2050.

Innovators that contribute to Iceland’s blue economy are coming up with solutions to extract the maximum value from fish stocks while combatting waste and supporting costal communities.

Iceland's innovation ecosystem

According to data from the European Commission, Iceland’s utilisation rate of fish biomass is significantly higher than its European neighbours. The country’s fisheries use around 80% of the total catch – and 90% of the cod biomass that is landed. Fifty years ago, this waste figure stood at 40-45%.

Reductions have been achieved thanks to a vibrant blue bioeconomy and the achievements of businesses that seek to maximise the value of fish waste and fishery by-products.

GettyImages Subtik Iceland fishery fish coastal
Iceland is cutting fish waste through innovation / Pic: GettyImages Subtik

The Iceland Ocean Cluster (IOC) is a prominent proponent of innovation in the sector. Founded in 2011 by Thor Sigfusson, the Cluster is a private sector initiative that supports the development of innovative new fish-based products through consultancy and networking services.

We are all worried about the health of our oceans. Sadly, we know there is still overfishing with many species around the world. We are trying to show the value that is delivered when fisheries realise the opportunities they have to do more with less. We don't necessarily need to catch more, we just need to utilise more of what we already have," ​Sigfusson told FoodNavigator.

"We are not an association of fisherman. Our approach involves so many other areas. The problem is moving this [biomass] from a natural resources industry to a nutraceutical or pharma producer. You are moving to a knowledge-based industry."

The Cluster serves as a bridge between different sectors and skill sets, linking fishermen with expertise in areas like nutraceuticals, pharma, and beauty. Currently it has 49 members, 29 of whom are SMEs with larger companies accounting for the rest.

“People are always asking 'can we get the fishermen to do these things'? I believe we need this ecosystem. In Iceland we have lots of seafood start-ups. It is a bottom up approach, they are approaching the fishermen with their knowledge and skills... Fishermen don't have to become the pharmacist, or the chemist or the product designer. The start-up world is exploding but we still need to bring more start-ups into the seafood sector,”​ Sigfusson said.

“Within the Cluster you will find an academic with an idea, a start-up with some new thinking, and - if we are doing our matchmaking with fisherman - we find new opportunities to create value.”

GettyImages-Woolfenden fishing boats fish
Growing the blue economy benefits fishermen and coastal economies / Pic: GettyImages-Woolfenden

Thinking beyond the fillet: 'The product we need to develop is a different mindset' 

Success stories from Iceland’s blue economy include Kerecis, a company Sigfusson describes as ‘one of our first unicorns’. Founded in 2011, the biotech group has developed a dressing for chronic wounds and burns upcycling fish skin from wild Atlantic cod. Elsewhere, companies like Codland produce supplements including calcium, omega 3 and marine collagen from previously unused parts of the codfish; Zymetech extracts enzymes from cod for cosmetic and medicinal use; and Lysi leverages side streams from fisheries to produce refined fish oil.

The key to unlocking this innovation potential – and starting to address the issue of waste in the fisheries industry - is a ‘mindset change’. The seafood industry needs to think beyond the fillet and understand the true value of fish, Sigfusson believes.

“Waste is [the result of] a mind block. Many people think of seafood as a resource blanket - that there is so much out there. This approach has been seen for centuries and centuries,”​ we were told. “Most seafood nations are quite good at getting the fillet to the market. There is little waste with regards to the fillet itself. But the rest of the story is different - it is the head, it is the bones, it is the skin, it is the intestines. The mindset is that this is waste. It is very hard to change mindsets overnight. People aren't thinking, aren't opening their minds. The product we really need to develop is a different mindset.”

GettyImages-Tuned_in cod fish
We need to think beyond the fillet to get the most out of every catch / Pic: GettyImages-Tuned_in

All of this biomass can be diverted from the waste streams they are currently destined for and turned into high-value ingredients and Icelandic businesses are demonstrating how this approach can pay off. For instance, fisheries HB Grandi, Samherji and Vísir have partnered with Codland to process all of their fish skin – around 3,000 metric tonnes – to produce high quality marine collagen, which is sold to businesses who produce consumer products. “These are some of the best proteins in the world. Sustainable proteins, nutritional proteins and traceable proteins,”​ Sigfusson stressed.

This innovation doesn’t just drive down waste, it drives up value. “We are able to show to everybody in this value chain we are doubling the value of each cod. Not because of the market value of the fillet, let’s take that out. Just from the by-products.”

This is obviously good news for fisheries. It is also positive for coastal economies, the Icelandic entrepreneur told us, noting that the blue economy is creating ‘so many exciting jobs’ in communities that have seen prolonged demographic drift. “These are not only processing jobs. These are jobs that are marketing, sales, chemistry, medical professionals.”

Ultimately, Sigfusson hopes to move to 100% utilisation of the fish carcass and see this way of thinking expand to other species and geographies.

“I see an opportunity not only with the fish skin but the whole fish. And not only cod, we see opportunities in herring [and other species]. We see nearly endless opportunities if we start to get this dating machine going between academia, research, fisheries and fish farmers.”

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