The value of exported fresh fish from Iceland has increased significantly with improved methods of handling and cooling of the catch. The annual export of fresh fish amounts to about ISK 40 billion. If the same volume was to be exported frozen, the value would be only half this amount.
The great success achieved in handling and cooling sea products can largely be attributed to research carried out by experts form Matís and universities, in close co-operation with fishing companies, and to endless urge to improve the handling, cooling and utilization of the catch.
The shelf-life of cod filets has almost doubled with proper handling and cooling, which results in higher value of fresh fish. Sigurjón Arason, professor and chief-engineer at Matís, says that much has been achieved during recent years, but the tasks ahead are also numerous.
Close co-operation with industry
The research and scientific work of Matís is usually done in close co-operation with Icelandic companies and also with companies in other countries. Sigurjón says that this aspect of Matís’s work, which has been the fundamental reason for the great progress made in handling and processing of sea products in Iceland, has been noticed abroad. Ms. Solveig Anspaker, Norwegian Minister of Fisheries, was impressed to learn about this close co-operation of the academia, institutions and companies in sea food sector. The international corporation, Nestlé, had heard of Matís’s good results with handling and cooling of fish and approached Matís with a large research program concerning better process control for frozen fish. Sigurjón says the findings from such projects are partly in the public domain. This widens Matís’s knowledge-base and will eventually also be useful for Icelandic companies.
“That a corporation with 270.000 employees comes to us is a fantastic opportunity for Matís. To work with them creates a lot of knowledge in within our ranks” says Sigurjón.
The tail stuck out
Sigurjón says the crusade for better handling of sea products started some time ago. He himself participated in efforts long time ago to change fish boxes on-board fishing vessels. The boxes were 86 cm long but the fish was 90-100 cm so the tail would sometimes stick out of the box. The boxes were then stacked up causing the fish to bruise. Bigger boxes were designed with the aim to bring better catches ashore. This was the beginning of the use of plastic tubs.
In these years it wasn’t unusual that a fishing tour would last seven to twelve days. At the turn of the century, the demand rose for fresher catch to be brought ashore and the fishing industry began to shorten the fishing tours. Instead of 24-28 tours per year, wet-fish vessels now make 50-60 tours per year. The fish is landed fresher, better cooled and better handled. The product now merits to be branded fresh and the value of the catch has increased considerably. Sigurjón says that ultimately the outcome was better, even if the operating cost was higher with the additional number of fishing tours.
Sigurjón also emphasises the importance of cooling before the product is packaged.
The time it takes the fish to reach rigor varies by species. Thus, this process is considerably longer for carp than for cod, or five days for carp and two days for cod. Therefore, fisheries, like, for instance, HB Grandi, one of the largest fishing companies in Iceland and a leader in its field, have adapted an efficient schedule for mixed catching. The catching starts with carp and then reverts to cod. By the time the catch is landed, both species have reached full death stiffness and are optimally ready for processing.
Round boxes and optimal transport routes
Shorter fishing tours are also effective for better cooling, which Sigurjón says is the fundamental issue in all handling of raw material, from catching and processing to transportation to the market. Much has been achieved in this matter and fishing companies have a good understanding of this. There have been many milestones in this development process, for instance the EPS box with round corners, which was a break-through in cooling fish products. The design of the box is based on research by dr. Björn Margeirsson then at Matís, which was a part of his Ph.D. work at the University of Iceland. In 2010, production of this box was launched, in co-operation with Promens Tempra. The box keeps the fish fresh two days longer than the traditional “square-corner” box. Björn is now employed by Promens as chief of research.
Sigurjón says that scheduled flights by Icelandair and Icelandair Cargo are very advantageous for the export of fresh fish from Iceland. Flight destinations are numerous and fresh fish can be delivered to all major markets in a short time.
The AVS-fund (Increased Seafood Value) has been instrumental in stimulating research which has the purpose to improve the handling and quality of seafood. One of the projects, says Sigurjón, was to increase the value of salted fish which is exported to Spain, Italy and Greece. The customers in these countries want white fish, but salted fish tends to turn rancid and obtain a yellow colour. In co-operation with partners in Norway, The Faroe Islands and Denmark, a research was launched into using phosphates in curing the fish. This was followed up with a time consuming process which involved obtaining the EU’s endorsement for using phosphates as an additive in salted fish. Now, salt fish producers use this method for curing salted fish for Iceland’s most valuable markets in Spain, Italy and Greece.
Sigurjón says the co-operation with Icelandic fishing companies hasn’t only led to development in the handling of fish, but also the development of new technology. Mackerel processing is one example. Many have said that Icelanders could not exploit the mackerel because it is caught in Icelandic waters at different times than elsewhere and the mackerel is then full of krill which makes the processing very difficult. With funding from AVS and in co-operation with Matís, the tech-company Skaginn developed a novel box-freezer. Already, three large companies in Iceland have installed such freezers for their mackerel processing and companies in The Faroe Islands have purchased this freezer technology for several billion ISK.
According to Sigurjón, research is on-going into further processing of mackerel, such as smoking and fileting, a processing that could be suitable for mackerel caught with hand line. Among projects at Matís today are studies on the stability of fresh and frozen mackerel, a study of processing methods and more. This research will later be applicable for herring, as such research has been sorely needed.
This interview was first published in Fiskifréttir, a national Icelandic newspaper focusing on fisheries.