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Iceland's Fisheries Show Environmental Stewardship Can Boost Business

Brim Fisheries. (Karyn Miller-Medzon)
Brim Fisheries. (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

Maintaining a balance between sustainability and profitability can be like walking a tightrope.

It’s a challenge well understood in Iceland where tourism, the nation’s biggest industry, is also the biggest driver of climate change. Emissions from air travel to and from the small island are the highest per capita CO2 footprint in Europe.

Fisheries, now the second largest contributor to Iceland’s GDP, face similar concerns. But at Brim Fisheries, CEO Gudmundur Kristjansson says it’s by taking careful measures to nurture the environment that it remains profitable.

His company was recently awarded Iceland’s Environmental Company of the Year Award. In accepting it, he reiterated that message: “Respect for nature has been our guiding principle…sustainability results in increased profitability and major benefits for society as a whole.”

Here & Now’s recent climate change reporting trip included a visit to Brim’s massive, modern processing facilities, which sit across from the dock where the company’s vessels unload their fresh catch.

The facility is huge — think Costco and then triple it. The processing facility is a hive of activity, with workers filleting fish by hand, feeding fish into processing machines, doing quality inspections and packing fish into crates and boxes, that tower from floor to ceiling as they await the forklifts that will carry them away.

We also see what looks like reach an oversized MRI machine with a conveyor belt running through the center.

“This is a water cutting machine,” supervisor Halldór Asbjörnsson explains. “In the front of the machines, we have an X-ray machine that takes pictures, finds the bone in the fish. We use a water jet to cut the fish.”

The first-of-it’s kind technology is an innovation by Iceland’s Valka tech company.

Watch on YouTube.

We watch large pieces of fish move through the machine on the conveyor belt, the water jets working so quickly it’s hard to catch the moment where the cutting takes place. But at the other end, Asbjörnsson picks up a fillet and displays the results: “Here we have the loin,” he says. “And this is a boneless piece for another product.”

But it’s not just the machine he’s proud of. It’s the philosophy behind it.

“I can tell you, 98% of the fish and the product that comes in here, we use. Even this piece I just dropped on the floor,” he says, picking up a scrap, “this will go for fish meal … for making food for salmon in Norway.”

Asbjörnsson has seen major changes in recent years, including the disappearance last year of the capelin fish. He speculates that rising sea temperatures are at least partly to blame.

“I do believe it is,” he says, explaining that mackerel, which are warmer water fish, have come north and replaced the capelin, which is “ not necessarily good for business.”

“Even though we have the same quota, it affects the cod because capelin is the biggest food source for the cod,” he says. “And we saw that after the cod spawning, it took a month more [for the cod] to get to the same weight as the year before when the capelin was present.”

Asbjörnsson says he fears more changes. The cod, he says, is moving north to cooler temperatures, away from their spawning grounds in the south of the country.

“We have less ice from the glaciers and less freshwater coming in in the spring,” he says, “and we want this salty/icy water in the spring because it’s around the time when the cod is spawning and it protects the roe [eggs] from bacteria.”

He says he fears that the loss of the fresh glacial water, with all its nutritive components, would cause a gradual decline in fish stocks.

In the meantime, he says he’s proud of the measures Brim is taking to preserve fish stocks and fight the rising ocean temperatures. He mentions the fishery’s new vessels “with better capacity and less carbon footprint than the next regulations.” To make a difference, he adds, it’s key that industry goes beyond what’s required.

From the processing plant, we head to Brim’s modern administrative offices, where we meet with CEO Gunmundur Kristjansson who remains optimistic. He says the company’s strategies to increase sustainability are proving profitable.

“We are selling for about 250 million dollars [a year]. We fish 150,000 tons of fish, we have 800 people” he says, noting that the company has come a long way in the last three decades.

“We had been overfishing our fish stocks for a long time and we had too big a fleet. Now we have now reduced our fleet and built up our fish stocks,” he says. “So we’re using much less effort to fish the quantity we are allowed to fish every year.”

He says the management of fish stocks resulted from cooperation between the fishing industry, scientists and the government.

Next, Kristjansson says, Brim instituted a series of measures that would reduce waste and the company’s carbon footprint.

“We’re building better ships — they use much less fuel that the older ships,” he says. “We have lighter fishing gear, and by having better fishing stocks, it takes fewer hours now to fish what we need,” he explains.

The company uses electricity when the boats are at sea, and when they’re docked, including the 10-day Christmas holiday, Brim pipes in hot water — geothermal heat — to keep the boats warm. There’s literally no need for oil.

The company also has a strict no-waste policy. Kristjansson says Brim hires a fish drying company that uses geothermal heat to dry fish heads that are sold in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. And then there’s a company in northeastern Iceland that produces bandages from cod skin.

“We use everything of the fish,” he says. “We use the fish skin as leather. We [also] produce collagen out of it, very good for your skin, your health.”

Still, he says his company can do more — like using electric cars and determining the carbon footprint of various shipping methods before delivering goods to Europe or the United States.

“We can be more aware of our nature. We are educating our people. We are trying to have less waste,” Kristjansson says.

“When I talk about sustainability, it’s that we cannot overfish, we must have healthy stocks and then it’s cheaper to fish,” he says. “And that has led in Iceland, that we have many, many healthy fishing companies that can pay their bills in the right time.”

And there’s a snowball effect. He says that by buying sophisticated and sustainable technologies from local Icelandic companies, those businesses thrive and can then sell their innovations abroad as well.

But in the end, he says, “We have a goal here that when we pass away, the fishing stocks are in better shape than when we came. We have to be careful with nature. And that has been my goal all my life.”

Kristjansson adds that transparency in the use of natural resources, including fisheries, is critical. “The countries that don’t have total transparency in utilizing natural resources? They are all in trouble.”

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