Tuna leather? Icelandic innovator tells Louisiana seafood industry to think beyond daily catch to ne

 
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July 28, 2016
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From The Advocate

By Richard Thompson

Leather made of tuna skin. Canned seafood marketed to tourists as souvenirs. Dried shrimp shells sold as a soup seasoning or used to extract chitin, a protein that has various agricultural, industrial and medical uses.

Those were a few potential revenue generators for Louisiana's seafood industry that were suggested Wednesday by Thor Sigfusson, an Icelandic entrepreneur who founded an incubator to connect businesses in the seafood industry.

The effort, called the Iceland Ocean Cluster, focuses on developing innovative ideas within the fishing industry and new uses for the daily catch.

"We have a scarcity of these natural proteins in the world, and these are absolutely the best proteins you can have," Sigfusson told state leaders and seafood industry officials in New Orleans during a two-day visit.

In Iceland, Sigfusson's work has focused on finding new money-making uses for discarded parts of fish to get a greater yield from each one. Cod, an Icelandic staple fish, is used in a variety of products, including cosmetics, food supplements and omega oils.

So far, the idea has gained traction with Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who attended Wednesday's breakfast discussion. He believes that Louisiana is in a prime position to bring together businesses that rely on the ocean and, in turn, work together to help expand the state economy.

"People are going to Iceland to see these facilities. We could draw people from every state in the country and be the leader in the United States in this industry," Nungesser said.

In Iceland, it's been driven largely by the effects of over-fishing decades ago. In 1981, the country's cod catch was about 460,000 tons, a figure that fell to 180,000 tons by 2011.

In that 30-year stretch, as cod was used in more products, its export value rose from $340 million in 1981 to $680 million in 2011. In 1981, cod exports were two-thirds frozen fillets and whole fish, but by 2011 nearly two-thirds were other products.

In 2012, the Iceland Ocean Cluster started with 12 businesses. It now has 64, which are located in a 30,000-square-foot building, Sigfusson said. The initiative brings businesses and entrepreneurs together who work across a variety of industries, like ocean technology, fisheries and fish processing, and sectors like biotechnology and ocean tourism.

The result: More of the fish yield is being used for different purposes, generating new revenue and diversifying Iceland's seafood business. Rather than only sell cod filets and livers for about $15, Sigfusson said, they added new products like cosmetics made from the cod's enzymes and fish skin made into leather or medical bandages.

Instead of selling cod liver for $3 per pound, he said, why not smoke it, can it and sell it for $7 a pound; transform it into fish and liver oil for $9 a pound; or make fish oil capsules for $370 a pound.

Fish intestines and raw material — nearly 12 percent of a fish's total weight — could be used for animal feed, which can be sold for $2 per pound; or in beauty products and sold for $300 per pound, he said. Fish skin can be sold in bulk as collagen for $7 a pound; bottled and sold for $70 a pound; made into shoe or clothing leather for $120 a pound; or turned into medical bandages and sold for nearly $2,000 a pound, he said.

Sigfusson has taken his ideas on the road before, including in Portland, Maine, where he helped spearhead the New England Ocean Cluster.

Nungesser said he would work to convince state lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards that Louisiana should consider launching a similar initiative. Sigfusson said he could be hired as a consultant for the project, and potentially draw in Icelandic investors.

"It's going to be an effort. It's not going to be an easy sell," Nungesser said, adding that he's optimistic "we can reach enough legislators and the governor that they can see the potential."

FOLLOW RICHARD THOMPSON ON TWITTER, @RTHOMPSONMSY.