When Matís was founded in 2006 as a public limited company by joining three government agencies specializing in research and development in the food industry. With the Fisheries Research Institute, Keldnaholt Food Research, and the Environment Agency’s Laboratory merged into one, Matís had great insight and expertise to fill its role to strengthen the competitiveness of Icelandic products and the economy, to ensure food safety and sustainable use of the environment, and to improve public health. Its activities today are under the Ministry of Industry and Innovation. We have invited Jónas Rúnar Viðarsson, Head of Value Creation at Matís to share his visions for the future of the Icelandic fisheries sector.
Iceland has a sterling reputation for top quality raw material from its fisheries. Delivering this quality calls for efforts that start from the time the fish is pulled on board the vessel. How do fishers ensure the quality of their catch and what role has Matís played in this?
Icelandic fisheries are characterised by stable and predictable supply year-round. The fisheries are managed by an individual transferable quota (ITQ) system that has been in effect for almost four decades, resulting in concentration of quotas by relatively few and large vertically integrated seafood companies. These seafood companies cover the whole supply chain, from capture all the way to market. Having these integrated supply chains enables the seafood companies to more efficiently control supply and quality. Also, by having strong and profitable seafood companies has allowed for investment in state-of-art technology where each link in the value chain is optimised. Matís and its predecessor, the Fisheries Laboratories, have worked with the seafood industry and its service sector to improve quality, processes and yield for over 50 years. This collaboration has been extremely successful in maintaining Iceland’s competitive advantage on the global wild capture seafood markets. The role of Matís in this respect has been to provide the necessary scientific know-how, and to link the industry, academia, and authorities on its way toward more profitable and sustainable seafood sector.
The quality that Icelandic fisheries deliver today has evolved over time with incremental changes over the years. What are the factors behind this evolution, and do you think it can continue indefinitely? Do you anticipate the difference between product quality now and 15 years into the future will be the same as it was 15 years into the past?
New knowledge, technology and innovation has paved the way for improved quality of seafood. Although most people may think that this is a conservative sector that does not change much from one year to another, the fact is that the sector is constantly adapting to new requirements. This became apparent in the Covid pandemic, where supply roots were affected, demand changed dramatically as restaurants and food service disappeared over night, and access to labour became unreliable. Today’s seafood suppliers rely on automation, artificial intelligence, computer vision, remote monitoring of shipments and full traceability of each lot. Throughput in finfish processing has increased tenfold (kg/person hour) in the last 15 years in Icelandic seafood processing with increased automation, which has also improved detection of quality defects. This is a development that does not have an end-point. You can always do better! It is therefore no reason to believe that we will not see similar advances in the next 15 years, as we have seen in the last 15 years. The focus could however be different, as attention may shift towards for example the capture process, packaging or logistics.
If the shelf life of a product reaches a peak beyond which it cannot be extended in an economically or environmentally sustainable way, what other avenues exist for adding value to the raw material that have acceptable costs and environmental impact?
Extending shelf life is obviously a key target from an economic and environmental perspective. The onboard handling is probably the single most important factor in deciding the quality and shelf life of the products, and it is simply not possible to produce top quality seafood from second rate raw materials. Efforts should therefore always by on optimising quality in each link of the supply chain. But in the end the quality of the raw materials will always vary, and it is therefore important to divert raw materials to their appropriate production lines. This is a cascading process where the best quality is delivered as fresh products, then frozen, and so forth. It is however always possible to create value from bioresources, even though in some cases the fish can only be used for feed, fertilizer or biofuel.
The processes that are initiated to maintain the quality of the raw material all along the supply chain are probably highly energy intensive. Is the sustainability of these processes a factor that is considered when they are developed?
Energy efficiency and sustainability is a key target in high-tech industrial fisheries today. This is both to meet consumer demand and to reduce cost. New fishing vessels in Iceland, for example, use only half the fuel they used 15 years ago, measured in kg catch / kg fuel. Refrigerants are becoming more environmentally friendly and logistics are also aiming to be more energy efficient. May suppliers are for example refraining from air transport because of its environmental footprint.
The fresh fish exported from Iceland is known for its quality. Other countries also export fresh fish, but their products do not enjoy the same standing. How has Iceland managed to develop this reputation and why is it apparently difficult to reproduce in other countries?
Iceland has a competitive advantage in supplying fresh cod and haddock to demanding markets. A big factor in this advantage is the stable supply of top-quality fresh fish year-round. Most other countries are subjected to seasonality in their fisheries, where majority of the catches are taken in only few months of the year. Key issue for high paying markets is to be able to offer stable and consistent supply and quality, which Icelandic seafood companies can deliver.
Developing innovative ways to add value to raw material calls for close collaboration with partners from industry, where this research is put into practice. How does Matís foster this kind of cooperation to ensure that solutions developed are practically feasible?
Matís has worked closely with the seafood industry (and its service sector) for decades in developing new solutions and processes. Trust and respect for mutual benefit has been built up along the way. Matís has also played an important role in education of future employees in the industry, by teaching at universities and working with students during their BSc, MSc, or PhDs. As results, there is a strong bond between Matís and many of those working within the industry.
Improving product quality is a process that has evolved over decades in Iceland. What advice can you offer other countries that seek to emulate this process? Does Matís cooperate with institutions or industries in countries outside the EU to assist them develop these capacities?
Linking industry, science, academia and government is a key for successful cooperation. Too often the scientists work is wasted because they do not listen to the needs of the industry. Finding a solution to a problem is worthless if it is not taken up by the end user. I would therefore say that in order to emulate what has been done in Iceland, it is absolutely necessary to foster cooperation between industry, science, academia, and government.
Matís cooperates quite a lot with institutions and companies abroad. This is mostly through Nordic and EU funding mechanisms, which are then primarily involving European cooperation. Matís does however also work with non-EU countries and companies to develop capacities in fisheries and processing.
Matís has been involved for many years in utilising by-products from fish processing to create new raw material and products. What are the trends within utilisation of by-products today? Have you now reached full utilisation of the raw material within cod processing in Iceland?
We do aim for 100% utilisation, but we are not there yet. A recent study by the Icelandic Ocean Cluster indicates that utilisation of cod is up to 90%. We should however not focus solely on utilisation factor, as emphasis should be made first on optimising the value of each raw material. The current trends have been on increasing what is used to produce human food, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals.
Globally, catches of raw material have stabilised and so cannot keep up with the demand from a population that is growing in number and in prosperity. Under these circumstances one must do more with less, that is, adding more value to the existing resource. With this in mind, where do you see the future of value addition?
We are obviously not likely to see more catches in wild capture fisheries, unless we will see advances in utilisation of mesopelagic species. Increasing utilisation is therefore an absolute must and to produce human food from what today is often regarded as “unwanted” catches. I do however feel that change in mentality is needed in respect to wild capture fisheries. Wild catch is a limited resource, which should be regarded as just that………wild capture! Consumers are happy to pay a premium for other wild captured animals, but not for fish. This is something I hope will change.