Liquid Assets

The oceans are critical to our survival and for too long we have been exploiting their resources such as fish in an unsustainable way. From Iceland to Kenya, high tech innovation and sheer imagination are helping to change the current economic thinking by discovering new and sustainable methods of fishing.

From the Save the Whales campaign of the 1970s to Greta Thunberg today, the environmental movement has gained serious traction around the world, and more people than ever are aware of the implications that human activities have on our planet. At the same time, global CO 2 levels are still rising, and as societies develop and the demand for goods and services increase, it is now imperative that the ways we produce and consume are sustainable. The world, as we know it, has been shaped by linear economics, meaning that resources are harvested, processed, used, and then thrown away. This generates an enormous amount of waste and creates a never-ending need for the extraction of new materials.

In a circular economy, resources are instead recycled or reused, and as a result, little or no waste is produced. Creating products from materials that otherwise would be discarded is a great way to increase profits and put less strain on our natural resources. This way of thinking can be adopted in all industries that are dependent on raw materials. Examples include Nordic Comfort Products, a Norwegian company that makes furniture from old fish nets and lines obtained from local fish farms, and Berlin-based company Kaffeeform that makes coffee mugs from old coffee grounds.

Of course, nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Creating new modes of production requires holistic objectives and synergy between a wide array of industries and manufacturers. Establishing connections and pathways for companies to work together is essential to achieve this.

Thor Sigfusson is an Icelandic entrepreneur and founder of the Iceland Ocean Cluster (IOC). Sigfusson originates from a long line of seafarers and fishers and was born on the Vestman Islands, a group of small islands south of Iceland. Productive fishing grounds surround the archipelago and fishing is as much of a lifestyle as it is a job. Iceland is one of the largest fishing nations in the world and fishing contribute a significant amount to both their GDP and export revenue.

While pursuing his PhD, Sigfusson studied how entrepreneurs used their networks and previous experiences to expand abroad. “Of course, for Icelandic innovators, living in a community of 350 thousand people, expanding abroad is not only an option, it is a necessity,” he explains.

Sigfusson noticed that actors from the seafood industry usually did not utilise their networks to the same extent as those from other sectors. Furthermore, the fisheries sector produces a great deal of waste and globally; only about 50% of the landed fish goes to use. Less desirable parts of the fish, such as the skin, bones, and organs usually end up back in the sea. Sigfusson realised the hidden potential, and in 2011, the IOC was created. The idea was to help connect fishery workers with tech entrepreneurs and businesses to provide innovative solutions to the seafood industry and maximise by-product utilisation. The goal is to reach a 100% utilisation, effectively eliminating any waste generation.

Some of the products that are made through the IOC include lamps crafted from cod leather, a cold medicine made from enzymes found in cod intestines, capsules filled with omega oils from cod liver, and tablets with collagen extracted from fish skin. Fishing by-product also includes discarded gear, with old sails, buoys and nets salvaged and turned into items such as bags, pillows, and lights.

Sigfusson explains that the most substantial benefit originating from the IOC is that it inspires people to be bold and to be better. “[Moving forward] We want to see the movement strengthen. The world is throwing away 10 million tonnes of perfectly good fish protein, and we want to change that. Just by using that protein instead of beef protein, we could save at least 120 tonnes of CO 2 .”

Icelandic fisheries are 90% MSC certified, meaning they are sustainable according to the Marine Stewardship Council. But any type of extraction – certified or not – has implications. Even though a predominantly seafood-rich diet has a lower carbon footprint than other animal diets, vegetarian or vegan diets are more environmentally friendly options. Global overfishing is occurring at an alarming rate, and studies show that up to 90% of all large fish species have been fished to the point of extinction over the past 100 years. Nonetheless, using all parts of the fish is better than tossing half of it overboard. The cluster model as realised by Sigfusson and his colleagues is easily adapted to fit other locations, and the IOC has already helped start four clusters in the US, with others planned in Europe and South America.

From a socioeconomic standpoint, creating sustainable livelihoods for fishing communities through value addition and by-product utilisation has tons of benefits. Many of the most marginalised peoples in the world depend on fishing for money and food, and it is in these environments where innovative thinking can have the most significant positive impact on people’s lives. Furthermore, these jobs are great opportunities for women to enter the seafood industry, an industry predominantly occupied by men.

In Kenya, the inland Nile Perch fisheries are of high economic value, but a large portion of the fish ends up as waste and is discarded. Kenyan company Victorian Foods saw the possibility and started VF. Leather, a company that creates leather from Nile Perch skin. The leather is a sturdy and sustainable alternative to exotic leathers such as snake and alligator, and more than 90% of their processors are women from local communities. Kenyan designers are now using their products in clothing, belts, bags, and other accessories. During the 2018 Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, local designers showcased their work on the runway – designs made entirely from fish leather and other materials harvested from the ocean.

Innovation exists everywhere – even in remote fishing villages – and harnessing this innovation will be vital in solving some of the biggest challenges facing the world at the moment. Of course, this does not only apply to the West, but also to anywhere else in the world. Switching to a sustainable mindset is challenging and will require extensive work and effort from governments, businesses, and civil society. Nevertheless, the potential benefits far surpass any growing pains, and as the saying goes: “One person’s fish intestines is another person’s business interest”.

Team Credits:
Words by Charles Westerberg
Photography by Gulli Már

Image credits:
1# Cod fishing in the Atlantic, Photo by Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis
2# Iceland Ocean Cluster´s headquarters in Reykjavik
3# Fishing vessel docked at Reykjavik
4# Cold spray from cod enzymes
5# Iceland Ocean Cluster Cod leather lamp
6# Omega capsule from cod liver & Collagen tablets made from fish skin
7#Omega capsule from cod liver
8# Iceland ocean cluster Karp bag
9# Dunlop rubber boots and Iceland Ocean Cluster collagen tablets
10# Nile Perch caught in lake Nasser, Egypt, Photo Ashley Halls