February 26, 2019

One Man's Byproduct Is Another's Delicacy

Meeting the Increasing Demand for Swim Bladder

The huge demand for the swim bladder delicacy has put intense pressure on certain large fish species. Ragnar A. Gudmundsson explains that cod offers a sustainable solution to this challenge and the opportunity for entrepreneurs to capitalize on this highly lucrative revenue stream.

Man’s impact on the natural world is well documented. Many of these accounts serve as compelling arguments not to repeat previous mistakes; particularly in the instances where activities have led to the extinction or near-extinction of living species.

While today, such catastrophes have become much rarer, they haven’t been eradicated. The considerable and rising consumer demand for dried swim bladders from certain large fish species—or “fish maw” as it is sometimes known—is an important case in point. While it has virtually no defining taste of its own, maw is richly-prized in Asian markets for its perceived health and beauty enhancing properties. The Chinese, in particular, consider it one of the sea's four greatest delicacies—alongside abalone, sea cucumber and shark fin. And currently, the highest quality swim bladders can fetch tens of thousands of dollars each on the open market.

Unfortunately, the insatiable demand for these products and the prestige that comes with ownership has led to the overfishing of a number of fish species. This includes the giant and endangered Mexican totoaba fish. At the same time, the small vaquita porpoise, which is prone to entanglement in totoaba nets, have been driven close to extinction.

A Flexible, Long-term Solution

While Mexico’s government has started to tackle the problem of illegal totoaba fishing in waters inhabited by vaquita, another lifeline has been thrown to these at-risk fish from thousands of miles away. It has been identified that when cleaned and naturally dried, the swim bladders of cod, one of the most sustainable fish stocks in the world, are an ideal alternative to the respective organs from totoaba and other species.

Because of abundantly healthy stocks like those in Iceland, cod is a ready-made solution to satisfy the immediate market requirements for swim bladders. Crucially, it also has the ability to meet significantly higher consumer demand in the future. In 2018, according to figures published by the Directorate of Fisheries, Icelandic fishermen landed almost 275,000 tonnes of cod, 6 percent more than the previous year. And a larger catch allocation has been given for the current fishing season.

Increasing the Value of Byproducts

As wild-capture fisheries are a finite resource, an essential part of the sustainability picture is ensuring that the seafood economy utilizes as much of each fish as possible. In the case of cod, some 50-60% of the biomass remains after filleting, which, if you are processing cod in large volumes, results in a lot of potential byproduct. Indeed, with the backbone (removed together with the swim bladder) representing 10% of the total weight of whole cod, last year’s 275,000 tonnes equates to 27,500 tonnes of backbones.

Because cod has a special place in the hearts and minds of Icelanders, a growing number of companies have been demonstrating that there’s a lot more value to be realized from cod than just the loin. Already, a lot of trimmings go to fishmeal production; fish oil is very valuable to the supplement sector; dried heads and backbones are a delicacy in markets like Nigeria.

Finding a high-value application for swim bladders is the next step in this journey. In fact, while the current economic crisis in Nigeria has drastically reduced all food imports, the new market for swim bladders in Asia proves the old proverb that when one door closes, another opens.

Don’t Be Late to the Party

State-of-the-art processing technologies are already in place to pursue this prospect. Initially, we manufactured the Skaginn 3X frame-cutting machine to offer a solution that removes kidney blood in the mincing procedure—we found out that by separating backbones with kidney blood, customers are more likely to get grade-A mince. Incorporated into a growing number of value-added groundfish solutions, it’s also the ideal piece of equipment to source swim bladders of the highest quality.

On receiving fish frames from the filleting machine, our frame-cutter separates the backbone along with the swim bladder and frame “tail”. While the frames and belly flap bones are sent to the mincing machine for separation processes, the backbone and swim bladder is frozen on blocks ready for shipping to China. There it will be naturally dried and readied for market.

With the wealth of consumers in Chinese and other Asian economies continuing to grow at impressive rates, aided by a rapidly expanding middle class, there’s probably no better time for processors to take the leap and capitalize on this burgeoning new opportunity.

The frame-cutting machine from Skaginn 3X uses 1 sq. meter of floor space and offers a capacity of 60 pcs/min

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