The following article appeared in Quick Frozen Foods International, July 1st, 2012
Icelanders row, row, row lumpfish roe boats, as triton maximizes harvest in China market.
When Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson underscored the importance of utilizing “every part of every fish harvested” in a speech made at the Promote Iceland stand during the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels on April 24, the folks across the aisle at the Triton Ltd. (www.triton.is) booth nodded in total agreement.
For the past four years the company has been successfully marketing lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) to the Chinese market, where its thick, sea cucumber-like skin is regarded as a delicacy. Previously, however, lump fish had been largely discarded into the sea by fishermen following the extraction of roe, which is in steady demand as a more affordable substitute for pricey sturgeon caviar.
“For several decades there was no market for the fish itself, beyond very limited domestic consumption,” said Ormur Arnarson, Triton’s chief executive officer. “Fishermen would slice open the belly to release the roe before throwing the still breathing gutted carcass overboard.”
What wasteful and disrespectful treatment of raw material, thought Arnarson upon joining the Reykjavik-headquartered company in 2003. He immediately began looking for ways to utilize the discards.
From 2005-09 Triton, a second-generation family business headed by President Orn Erlendsson, spent a lot of time and exerted much effort seeking potential markets for lumpfish.
The company also tried to develop methods to process the meat, which is a relatively small part of the whole at just 20%. It turned out to be quite difficult to cost-effectively separate the meat, due to the gelatinous, thick skin of the fish.
“It wasn’t until 2008, when we got in touch with a representative from a company in China, that the ball started to roll,” said Arnarson. “It turned out that for the Chinese palate the ‘problematic’ skin was the actual selling point of the fish. Chinese consumers like its taste and the texture, which they compare to the popular sea cucumber.”
Strangely enough, dealing with Icelandic fishermen proved to be more complicated than expected at first. In order to maximize the catch Triton asked them to alter the way they opened the fish to extract the roe.
“The fishermen were reluctant to change their habits and, in the beginning, few actually believed in this project,” said Arnarson. “We had to persuade them by demonstrating that the additional value of the fish was more than enough to cover the petrol cost for their boats during the entire season, and that this added value was achieved without any additional expense or investment.”
After hearing about Triton’s successful export of lumpfish, the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries (from the Left/Green Movement party) implemented a new regulation which stipulates that, from the 2012 season onward, it is compulsory to bring the entire lump fish to shore thus making it illegal to dump discarded material back into the sea. Demand from China has become so strong that numerous land-based jobs have been created in Iceland dedicated to gutting and freezing the fish.
Iceland’s lumpfish catches are about 3,000 metric tons per year (based on an average season). The species is also harvested in the cold North Atlantic waters of Norway, Denmark, Greenland and Canada.
The catching season runs from mid-April to the end of June. About 400 small coastal boats are active in the Icelandic fishery, with several fishermen working on each vessel.
This year the island nation’s entire catch is expected to go to China. There chefs will fillet and stir-fry, braise or steam the meat and serve it up with soybean sauce, vinaigrette dressing, XO sauce, flower peppers and a variety of other flavorful ingredients.
The total export value of lumpfish from Iceland is upwards of US $7.5 million per annum. Not bad for a raw material that, for decades, had simply been thrown away!
Triton, which has been in business since 1977, exports a wide assortment of frozen and canned seafood products to buyers around the world. In addition to lumpfish, its offerings include capelin caviar, herring roe, sea urchin and cod liver pate.