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Iceland’s mission to reuse fish waste

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This article was first introduced on hakai magazine, Online publication on the science and society of coastal ecosystems. To read more articles like this,

A blurred-eyed traveler walks through the arrivals hall of Keflavik Airport in Iceland, blinking at a sight that is initially difficult to discern. It’s a giant ad featuring a shirtless man holding a baby. Bands of wrinkled skin are visible on the male’s torso and visible arms. He’s half aquatic and looks like he’s part of the superhero world.

Coincidentally, this sleep deprivation analysis isn’t far off. A man with a baby, Petur Odson, is a power plant worker. In 2020, he survived an electric shock of 60,000 volts. As a result, nearly half of his body was severely burned, charring a layer of his skin. Such deep and extensive burns can be fatal. Skin damaged in this way cannot regenerate new cells, and infections can easily develop.. But Odson’s life was saved by an ingenious invention of grafting 7,000 square centimeters of cod skin. This procedure left Odson with a permanent and distinct scale imprint on Odson’s upper body.

Odson’s cod skin graft is a medical marvel. But they also represent something else. It also represents an unusually ambitious experiment in eco-efficiency. The skin graft is just one of many products made from cod remains once caught in Iceland, including omega-3 capsules, cold virus pretreatment sprays and dog snacks. These are primarily due to 100% Fish efforts. The project is driven by an incubator, Iceland Ocean Cluster, working with research institutes and private companies to determine how to reuse by-products from the country’s US$2 billion seafood sector.

So far, enterprising Icelanders have uncovered uses for nearly 95 percent of cod, a fairly recent advance. Back in 2003, people knew what to do with only about 40 percent of the fish.

Arni Masisen, senior adviser to the cluster and former fisheries minister, says the 100% fish project has created jobs and revealed a once scarce domestic product. Alexandra Leaper, head of research and innovation at the cluster, added that it provided low-impact fishmeal to the burgeoning aquaculture industry. In this regard, 100% Fish looks beyond cod. A company called Nordic Fish Leather upcycles farmed salmon skins into leather for accessories, while another, Primex, extracts chitosan, which can be used as a blood-clotting agent, from the shells of wild Atlantic shrimp.

The cod skin graft is the brainchild of Fertram Sigurjonsson, a chemist and founder of the biotech company Kerecis, part of the 100% Fish project. Grafts come in several sizes, including wide strips for larger scars. Glove shape, for hands. The granules act like putty on small wounds and have been used to treat thousands of burn patients, diabetics with open wounds, and infected caesarean women. Doctors can perform some of these procedures with pig skin grafts, which are taken from animals that have been genetically engineered for that purpose. Conversely, the fish skin comes from cod caught for food by fishermen in Sigurjonsson’s northwestern hometown of Ísafjörður. (The fisherman also owns valuable shares in his company.)

Keresis currently processes just 0.01 percent of its Icelandic cod skin into grafts, Sigurjonsson said. But as demand grows and Keresis’ R&D department decides on more uses and is researching breast reconstruction, he’s considering expanding his business.

Cod skin is about 8 percent by weight. Cod skin is rich in collagen, which not only makes an excellent graft material, but is a supplement for human skin, ligament and bone health. Cooking cod skins in enzyme-infused water can easily strip this protein, says Fron-Margret-Magnusdottir. She is the founder of Feel Iceland, a collagen supplement and energy her drink company that uses 700 tons of fish skin-derived collagen annually.

Bones make up at least 35 percent of the weight of cod. Icelandic companies use the country’s abundant geothermal energy to dry the fish’s heads and spines for an extended period of time before exporting them to Nigeria, where they serve as the base for protein-rich soups. But Margret Geirsdottir, project manager at Matisse, a food and biotechnology research institute affiliated with the Icelandic Marine Cluster, says the unpredictability of the market has pushed researchers to explore new uses, such as calcium extraction for supplements.

According to Geirsdottir, the blood and eyes are the hardest parts of eating a whole fish.

According to Icelandic lore, squeezing the fluid from the eyes of a redfish into a wound can prevent infection. Scientists at Matisse followed this up, studying whether cod’s eyeballs had antiseptic properties. Not so lucky. There was also a project to see if the eyes contained valuable fat, Geirsdottir said.They do, she says, “but it’s a very low amount and you [extract] I’m doing it manually, so I don’t get any profit. “

Fish blood, which accounts for 10% of a fish’s body weight, could be used to make products such as sausage stuffing, fish feed, and fertilizer, similar to products made from the blood of land animals. But Geirsdottir says the most difficult part of working with fish blood is collecting the blood. On commercial fishing vessels, cod is bled quickly to keep it fresh. Convincing skeptical fishermen to invest in keeping fish intact means proving the effort is worth it.

However, there are also optimistic precedents. Fishermen once threw cod liver overboard. It is now an expensive delicacy that fishermen happily preserve. What has changed? A few years ago, fishermen were able to make big profits selling cod livers, Geirsdottir said. “Then they started seeing value in it,” she says.

This article was originally published on hakai magazine Republished here with permission.

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