Credit: Hugi Ólafsson
Iceland is leading the way in the blue bioeconomy and initiated a study to explore its potential in the Arctic. While there’s no one-size-fits-all business model, ocean industries could be key to tackling food security while fostering sustainable development. After all, innovation meets millennia of experience in the High North.

It’s not a smell for the faint hearted. Delegates had even received a warning to not wear their finest clothes and to seal anything they did wear that evening in a plastic bag before packing their luggage. It was no exaggeration. The odor of dried fish struck them the moment they entered the factory and crept into the fibers of coats and shawls as they walked past containers filled to the brink with cod heads.

The Icelandic Chairmanship team had brought Arctic Council delegates at the June 2020 executive meeting to Codland – a posterchild of Iceland’s blue bioeconomy. Codland was established in 2012 by seven fishing and ocean-related companies with an ambitious target: to find a use for all parts of a cod. Less than a decade later, it’s a successful venture. What once was considered waste is now turned into valuable new products such as marine collagen, mineral supplements and fish oil.

Codland was established in 2012 by seven fishing and ocean-related companies with an ambitious target: to find a use for all parts of a cod. Less than a decade later, it’s a successful venture. What once was considered waste is now turned into valuable new products such as marine collagen, mineral supplements and fish oil.

Kristina Baer

Iceland has become a frontrunner in maximizing the value of the entire fish. According to the Iceland Ocean Cluster, eighty percent of the landed cod in Iceland is utilized. By way of comparison, international estimates reveal that up to 43 percent of captured fish and shellfish resources end up either as wastage or discarded material.

So, what has Iceland done differently? In addition to examples such as Codland, national regulations and good cooperation between R&D organizations and companies have enabled the fishing industry to innovate. This development has been driven forward by both need and initiative. In order to grow, companies that depend on naturally limited marine resources faced a need to increase the value drawn from their catches. The blue bioeconomy, consequently, has become an important part of Iceland’s economy.

“The blue bioeconomy is a kind of back to basics thinking in the sense that it’s about making the most of what you get. It’s about maximizing the value of and revenue from marine catches and minimizing waste and negative environmental impacts of marine operations by using innovative processing methods,” explains Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials during Iceland’s Chairmanship.

As a nation surrounded by the sea, with fish products making up around forty percent of its national commodity exports, Iceland played into its strengths by putting the blue bioeconomy on the agenda for its Chairmanship (2019-2021). The “Blue Bioeconomy in the Arctic” project under the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) was set up to explore opportunities to increase the value of marine products and to evaluate how the blue bioeconomy could contribute to sustainable economic development in the Arctic and beyond. The outcome is a desktop study that presents the current state of various blue bioeconomy sectors (marine fisheries, aquaculture, algal biomass and freshwater fishing) in four Arctic regions: Iceland, Norway, Northern Canada and Alaska.

“We found that the blue bioeconomy is important to many Arctic communities. It provides food security, economic value and employment, which in turn counteracts the decline and collapse of rural settlements. However, there’s no one Arctic blue bioeconomy,” says project lead Bryndís Björnsdóttir at Matís, an Icelandic food and biotech R&D company.

In some regions, high costs of food production, limited infrastructure, the absence of supportive legislations, cultural tensions associated with commodifying traditional Indigenous foods, limited innovation and an over-reliance on raw export put constraints on development of a blue bioeconomy. Nonetheless, communities and governments across the four regions generally acknowledged the importance of the blue bioeconomy for diversifying local economies and redefining food security.

This support might have grown further during the coronavirus pandemic. “Covid-19 affected the Arctic blue bioeconomy in several ways. Sales of primarily fresh fish products for example declined due to reduced market demands and limited transport. But Covid-19 generally also increased the awareness of food security issues. In many regions, the pandemic brought focus on the need to increase regional food production within the Arctic,” says Bryndís Björnsdóttir.

The blue bioeconomy is a kind of back to basics thinking in the sense that it’s about making the most of what you get.
– Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson

In many Indigenous communities, subsistence hunting and fishing became a showcase of the Arctic resilience during national and local lockdowns. Millenia of sustaining communities from Arctic lands and waters, have rendered Indigenous peoples experts on utilizing limited resources to the fullest. “Sustainable development, including a blue bioeconomy, is not a new concept for Inuit. Our economy has always been blue,” reads a statement by the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

While regional interests and cultural understandings of the blue bioeconomy differ substantially between regions, the project report identified important common interests and initiatives where the Arctic region can benefit from collaboration and mutual support to strengthen the blue bioeconomy. Dedicated funding schemes, capacity building and a virtual pan-Arctic network connecting innovation centers, research organizations, businesses and entrepreneurs are among the actions recommended in the report under the heading Arctic potential.

Arctic potential also awaited the Arctic Council delegates as they made their way out of Codland to yet another (more appetizing) Icelandic blue bioeconomy demonstration. The owners of HS Orka, a geothermal powerplant, had prepared a barbeque on the terrace, grilling Senegal flounders. What sounds like a long-range food transport actually comes from the vicinity. Stolt Sea Farm produces Senegal flounders in land cages on the Reykjanes peninsula in South West Iceland, where the conditions for the tropical fish surprisingly are ideal. The powerplant uses saltwater from wells for cooling its generators which is subsequently pumped directly to Stolt Sea Farm at an ideal temperature for farming, around 20 °C.

This hands-on experience of blue bioeconomy for the Council’s delegates, are two of eighteen best practice examples and success stories outlined in the project report. Thus, there is already a lot of knowledge and expertise to share – and much potential for future social activities at Arctic Council meetings.

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