Icelandic fish is among the purest and most responsibly fished in the world because they control the process from start to finish. We have seen how the fishing boat works; hauling in those floppy little critters in the middle of the night, now let's see how they get cleaned and sent to the supermarket.
Sounds like grade school...but more fun because this TreeHugger actually visited a fish processing plant in Iceland, courtesy of Waitrose supermarkets. Stop now if you don't like the smell of fish, otherwise, after the fold: blood, guts and lots of fish.
The fish plants are small, the Einhamar Seafood EHF is one huge room in a pre-fab bulding.
We were shown around by Hallefridur Brynjolfsdottir (right), who is the only female head of a fishery in Iceland. Very cool--unfortunately you can't see the black sequins on her trousers. She explained that smaller plants are better for quality control; a smaller operation means the fish is fresher because it can get from the fishing boat to the airplane more quickly.
In this plant, cod and haddock are the main fish. The fished cod are 7 to 8 years old. The plant hopes to be starting catches of catfish and arctic char in the summer. They handle 10 to 15 tons of fish a day.
Most of the fish goes to Waitrose supermarkets in the UK. They buy 60,000 tons a week. The English prefer fillets of 10 oz. However the large fillets of cod (12 oz.) go to New England restaurants in the USA. The fishing banks are closed there until the middle of June so they import from Iceland.
As promised, here's the guts! Now it only gets better. First step, after putting on the blue hair net, shoe covers and coat, is to see the guys ( it's a man's job) cleaning, cutting, icing and grading the fish. This is done in a separate room to keep it all sanitary. They get rid of the heads, tails, insides and guts. Most everything is used: the heads and bones are turned into soup for hyenas, the liver goes to fish oil pills, the roe is good for smoking and the guts go to the garbage. The skin is used for catfood, fishcakes and handbags.
The men take the waste out of the fish before it goes onto the conveyor belt. Here the fish is further cleaned until it reaches the finishing stages.
Over to the women for the final touches. They take the bones out, do the trimming and make it look nice. The women are from all over: Poland, Mongolia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Here's the fish, ready to go. On the airplane by 6 p.m., in the Waitrose warehouses the next day, packed, picked up and delivered to the stores for the morning opening. So it is 48 hours from plant to store. Very fresh.
We discussed some environmental issues with Hallfridur. She explained that with all the best will, there are some things that cannot be avoided at this time; like styrofoam and airplanes and plastic. She said that they are constantly thinking about environmental changes but can't do everything.
The fish have to shipped in styrofoam because it works best to combat leakage. They tried paper bags and cardboard but it didn't work. The boxes are destroyed and re-sold. They cannot be sent back to Iceland for re-use because it is too expensive. Plastic bags--a necessity for sanitary reasons and demanded by the purchasers.
They have changed some of their practices. They have removed unnecessary inserts from the shipping boxes. They are trying to replace the plastic cooling bags placed on top of the fish to keep them cool. She is working with one company to use dry ice instead.
As for the airplanes, Jan Thomsen, from Danica Seafood Ltd. explained that all of the fresh fish is sent by air to the UK. Eventually they hope to get away from planes and are starting to think of alternatives because oil is expensive. The frozen fish, mainly prawns, is 30% of their business and is sent by boat which takes 3 days. They are hoping to introduce hydrogen fuel cells on the boats. Since Iceland is sitting on a geothermal bed, the plant itself is heated geothermally, with hot water and air.