'good enough' syndrome
How Iceland is turning fish into a luxury item
overlooks Reykjavik's busy harbour
In Reykjavik's harbour, overlooking the colourful fishing vessels, there's a building full of bright, young entrepreneurs. They may never set foot in a boat, haul a net or set a hook, but with their social media, marketing and design skills they're helping maximize value from the seafood industry.
Listen to Jane Adey's Atlantic Voice documentary below.
The members of Iceland's Ocean Cluster House, an innovation incubator for start-up companies, are developing new business ideas from fish meat, oil, bones, intestines and skin.
This September, government officials, educators and people involved in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery visited the Ocean Cluster House to take notes on Iceland's successful experiment. Their tour starts at the house's public restaurant, "Bergsson," where pillows are made from boat sails and pendant lights are cleverly fashioned from old buoys. Everywhere you look there are reminders of the fishery.
"We love to have designers involved with what we are doing here," says founder Thor Sigfusson.
While working on his PhD in business, Sigfusson found that fishing companies with money to invest weren't well connected with start-ups. In 2011, he brought them together under the Ocean Cluster House roof. The ideas pitched, developed and funded there are transforming the Icelandic economy.
The Ocean Cluster House has spawned about 100 new Icelandic companies.
Groundfish is slowly rebounding on Canada's east coast and the Newfoundlanders want to see first-hand how Iceland is creating so much value from its fishery.
What they discover is a Jetsons-esque vision of the future where your supper comes out of a 3D printer and fish skin, intestines and bones are used to make luxury products.
Sigfusson tells the story of a business called Dropi, which has transformed cod liver oil from a smelly medicine to a luxury good.
Business incubation hubs aren't new to Newfoundland and Labrador — there's Common Ground, Memorial University's Genesis Centre and Holyrood's Beach Head.
All are spaces for tech start-ups, but the seafood industry hasn't participated to any large degree.
In Iceland, the Ocean Cluster House is having great success. Every year, about 2,000 foreigners come to tour the house to find out how this small island nation is building its economy with its ocean resources.
Next, Sigfusson holds up a gel product made with enzymes found in fish intestines. The idea came from a researcher who wondered why the hands of his fishing nephews were surprisingly soft and supple.
Penzim's research indicates that enzymes found in fish intestines can heal damaged skin and ease joint pain.
"We have to treat it like a luxury good."
Sigfusson draws the group's attention to a table filled with other products made from fish skin, bones and intestines; parts that are thrown overboard in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"What is a bit annoying for us Icelanders is that we're mostly hearing that fisheries around the world need more fish to catch, but they are still throwing back 55 to 60 per cent of the fish and we're actually saying you can do more with less," says Sigfusson.
"These guys are actually telling the fishermen, just bring me the skin and throw the rest away!"
As well as aiming for full utilization of the fish, Iceland is also innovating in the food market. Sigfusson points out ornate boxes made by Reykjavik Foods. "They're canning Icelandic salmon and by doing that we can bring jobs back to Iceland," he says.
What Sigfusson tells the Newfoundlanders next, gives them hope.
"Many of these companies have actually started outside of Reykjavik in small villages … so it shows that Newfoundland is also a place where something like this can get going if the entrepreneurial spirit is there," he says.
Although the younger generation in Iceland is keen to move the fishery forward, Sigfusson found many older Icelanders in the fishery resisted change.
"The good-enough syndrome is very deep in seafood."
"People told me in the beginning, you will only find 10 companies that need space and that's it," says Sigfusson.
Dozens of successful companies later, Sigfusson laughs at the naysayers. He's since helped set up Ocean Clusters in Portland, Maine and New Bedford, Mass. and he thinks the time is right for Newfoundland and Labrador.
"Just build it, and people will come because there are so many ideas out there."
How Iceland is cashing in on
We've all heard eating lean fish protein is good for you. Well, how about drinking it? The Icelandic company, Codland, is betting on a health drink it developed using marine collagen.
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the body and it maintains skin's elasticity. Codland developed a process to extract anti-aging collagen from cod skin.
"We have the know-how from a Spanish company that is making collagen from pig skin so we are using their know-how to do the same with the fish skin," says Tómas Eiríksson, Codland's managing director.
Codland's first collagen-based product is a lemon-flavoured health drink called Alda.
"When ... I tasted Alda in the beginning, I knew this was a good drink. This is something the market wants," says Eiríksson.
Codland has been testing the thirst for its product by selling Alda at the famous hotspring, the Blue Lagoon.
"That was excellent for us because you get people from different cultures buying it," Eiríksson says.
Before they add more flavours, Codland plans to build a factory in order to be ready for the export market.
Cod skin at the doctor's office
Fertram Sigurjonsson is another Icelandic entrepreneur creating value from fish by-products. His company, Kerecis, makes medical implants from cod skin.
Kerecis has developed a method of removing all of the cells from fish skin.
"From the naked eye it still looks like just regular fish skin and then we sterilize it and pack it," explained Sigurjonsson.
"Human skin is surprisingly similar to fish skin, there is no disease transmission risk from coldwater fish to humans."
Once the sterile fish skin is applied to the wound, healthy cells from the wound perimeter grow into the fish skin. As it starts to become populated by cells, fish skin converts to human skin in just a few weeks.
The fish skin, rich in omega-3, is being used to treat diabetics whose foot wounds can become infected and result in amputations.
The company is also working on a product to be used in breast reconstruction.
"Usually you put a silicon implant into the breast but you need a supporting sling to maintain the breast implant elevated and they normally use a nylon string that is sutured into the chest but we are working on technology where we suture the fish skin into the chest to support the implant", says Sigurjonsson.
"We are going to change the world with fish skin,"
Sigurjonsson says Iceland's financial crisis in 2008 forced people to work to create more value in the fishing industry.
Fish skin for fashionistas
Designer Arndis Johannsdottir holds up a stunning purse, decorated with shiny strips of gold and silver leather at Kirsuberjatred, an art and design store in downtown Reykjavik.
"I use mainly four different types of fish: wolfish, salmon, perch and cod," she says.
Johannsdottir educates visitors about the qualities of this clever leather. Many assume it's delicate but she is quick to point out its durability.
"Fish skin is 10 times stronger than normal leather because it has cross fibres. It's very light and it's very thin but very strong."
Design pioneer Johannsdottir was introduced to the versatile material 35 years ago. She was working as a saddlesmith when a woman came into her shop with fish skin her husband had tanned after the Second World War. Hundreds of pieces had been lying unused in a warehouse for 40 years.
"Even after 40 years, it was still very, very strong and the colours were beautiful and ... I fell in love with it immediately," says Johannsdottir.
Johannsdottir bought the woman's stock and started experimenting. When she held an exhibition of her fish skin work, a tannery from northern Iceland, took notice.
Gunnstein Bjornsson of Atlantic Leather says fish skin has been used throughout history in Iceland as leather for shoes but it wasn't tanned, it was dried.
The challenge for his company was to figure out how to tan fish skin properly. According to Bjornsson, they faced two big problems — it smells fishy and it's too stiff.
"The basic difference [from traditional leather] is that fish is cold-blooded species ... so the temperature tolerance is quite low," says Bjornsson.
"If you put a fish skin into a traditional tanning bath of 37 degrees, you get a smelly fish soup!" Gunnstein Bjornsson
"I can tell you, it was a long and bumpy road," Bjornsson says.
The next biggest challenge for Atlantic Leather was finding a profitable market. Icelanders loved the material but a local market would not make the venture worthwhile.
Bjornsson decided to focus on Europe. Like most Icelandic entrepreneurs, he has to think big.
Since 1999, Atlantic Leather has made twice-yearly trips to the fashion material shows in Paris.
"We have worked with all of the major brands. Vuitton, Gucci, Ferragamo, Prada and more." Gunnstein Bjornsson
The company has plans to hook buyers in the United States and Canada, by expanding their colour line and textures.
The Obama bowtie
Johannsdottir lifts up a tray of fish leather belts and bowties.
"This one is called 'The Obama'," she says. It was given to the former U.S. president by the ambassador of Iceland.
While Johannsdottir hasn't seen Obama wear his special tie in public yet, she's not worried about the fish skin's attractiveness holding up over time.
"Some of the bags that I made 35 years ago from material that was 40 years old when I made them they are still going strong. That skin is 75 years old ... and it's still beautiful," says Johannsdottir.
She is proud to earn her entire living from fish skin, a product that in many other countries would be considered waste.
Eat your fish!
How Iceland is innovating in the seafood market.
In Iceland, a government-owned food and biotech company called Matis is experimenting with a device that looks like Jane Jetson's Food-A-Rac-A-Cycle. The Foodini is a 3D food printer.
"Having kids eat a fillet of fish is not very exciting, but if you can create a dinosaur shape or a volcano … if I was a kid, I would definitely go for cod in the form of a volcano," jokes Holly Kristinsson, a Matis food scientist.
Kristinsson whips up a mixture of salted cod, milk and potato in a bowl to fill five cartridges, in the Foodini.
She presses a few buttons and presto, the Foodini begins 'printing' the food into the shape of a star.
Kristinsson places the 7.5-centimetre creation on a plate and squirts a dab of seafood sauce in the middle for colour.
Foodini was developed by a company called Natural Foods to deal with food waste. Users can shape their leftovers into any shape they want.
Nutritionist Steinar Adalbjornsson hopes 3D food printing will help young people develop a taste for fish.
At Kronan, a well-known supermarket chain in Iceland, Adalbjornsson shows off the wide range of local seafood for sale.
Here, there's cooler after cooler of fresh and frozen Icelandic-caught fish: cod, haddock, ling, salmon, shrimp, scampi and more. Although there's no lack of choice, Adalbjornsson says the rich source of omega-3 is still not chosen enough.
"As a nutritionist, I sometimes say, our oceans are among the cleanest on the planet … with a change in the consumption patterns of kids in Iceland we could minimize the negative effect of modern lifestyle diseases," says Adalbjornsson.
The store's seafood section has a whole wall devoted to dried fish — fillets, fish jerky and dried fish chips.
"Many people use it as a snack, but it's relatively expensive so it's easier for young people to get chips," says Adalbjornsson.
What progress has been made in fish consumption could be attributed to one of Iceland's most celebrated TV chefs and champion of local food, Sveinn Kjartansson.
Kjartansson tells me he dreamed of being a professional pastry chef but instead became famous in Iceland for serving and promoting something else — seafood.
His taste for the ocean quite literally came from his childhood. Fish mongers delivered a weekly catch to his family's door.
"I did eat a lot of seaweed when I was younger," he remembers. "When the family was sitting in front of the TV on Saturday, we had a bag of black seaweed. I thought all my friends were eating the same thing, but they were eating popcorn," says Kjartansson.
Today, Kjartansson owns the acclaimed AALTO Bistro in Reykjavik's Nordic House.
He's trying to encourage Icelanders to eat more locally harvested seafood with a menu of fish soups, herring tartare, cured char and crab cakes.
He gained fame in Iceland on a weekly television program called Fagur Fiskur, which, in Icelandic, means "beautiful fish."
The goal of the show was to try and get locals to eat more than 60 grams of fish a week. "At the time, young people weren't even eating one course a week," he says.
Kjartansson doesn't find the idea of 3D food printing all that appealing. Given that he makes his living creating and shaping food with his hands, that's no surprise. But he's on board with any advancements that lead to greater recognition of the health benefits of fish and the people who harvest it from the sea.
"There are people going on the boats and they are working hard to get fish and we have to start appreciating it more … this is our product and people should be proud to eat it."
The 'good enough' syndrome has been vanquished in Iceland where the value of the fishery has increased by 60 per cent even though catch rates are down by half. Their efforts should serve as an inspiration for Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs.