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Fish are food, and fashion

Innovation Summit speaker shares tips from Iceland

Posted: January 31, 2014 - 1:12am
Thor Sigfusson, founder and managing director of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, holds a dried cod's head as he speaks at JEDC's Innovation Summit on Wednesday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Thor Sigfusson, founder and managing director of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, holds a dried cod's head as he speaks at JEDC's Innovation Summit on Wednesday.

Thor Sigfusson has one job, as he sees it: To be the dating service for seafood CEOs.

Sigfusson, the director of Iceland Ocean Cluster, does his business by improving others’. He provides a space for seafood companies and related industries to mingle, mix and share ideas. Since it got its start in 2011, the cluster has brought together 60 companies that bring in a total of $6 billion annually.

Sigfusson addressed the crowd — a mixture of state government representatives, private business owners and others — at the third annual Innovation Summit on Wednesday at Centennial Hall. He spoke about the importance of bringing companies together for a common cause for the benefit of the economy — the definition and purpose of a cluster — as well as involving the younger generation to make sure the seafood industry continues into the future.

Both Iceland’s and Alaska’s economies rest heavily on the seafood industry: Fish brings in a total of $7 billion annually to Iceland’s economy, and $5.8 billion to Alaska’s, according to Sigfusson’s numbers. He called Iceland and Alaska part of the “Silicon Valley of fish.”

He said his goal is to double the value of the cluster over the next 10 years.

“We think it’s something we can do,” Sigfusson said. “It will take some effort; it will take some paradigm shifts. Alaska and Iceland are perfect candidates for paradigm shifts.”

One of these shifts is to spur product diversification by using more of each fish caught, instead of throwing it “into the dustbin,” he said.

The idea is to move away from seeing fish only as food and nothing more, Sigfusson said. This includes turning cod skin to leather for clothing and shoes and creating fish oil capsules and cosmetics. It’s making money from parts of the fish that would have otherwise been tossed, he said.

“In Iceland, we are taking skins and selling them for fashion — $7.50 per piece,” Sigfusson said. “A huge added value in our fisheries is from using more of the fish. We’ve been able to more than double the value of each cod caught in Icelandic waters.”

In attendance at Sigfusson’s talk were Susan Bell, Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development commissioner, and Juneau Economic Development Council Executive Director Brian Holst. The JEDC sponsors the Innovation Summit each year.

Bell said much of Sigfusson’s talk struck a chord with her. Her department has many offshoots, including the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, focused on building Alaska’s seafood industry.

She said product diversification could add a lot to Alaska’s fish market.

“We have some salmon skin products, but there’s so much more potential of what we could be doing,” Bell said, adding that value isn’t being fully extracted from Alaska’s fish. “We’re doing a lot of grinding up of (fish) waste and it’s going into the ocean, and the (Environmental Protection Agency) wants changes to be made in the future.”

Bell said the talk relates to House Bill 204, sponsored by Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, which would extend and modify an available state tax credit for salmon product developers.

Pacific Seafood Processors Association Vice President Vince O’Shea said Alaska’s fish industry is ready to move on from using fish as food only.

“This industry is highly competitive and I don’t think it takes much convincing to sell the industry that there’s money in value-added products,” he said.

Product development relates back to Juneau’s own industry clusters, developed in 2011 by Holst and the JEDC. Much of the Innovation Summit, which ran Wednesday and Thursday, centered around bringing related businesses together for the good of the order, just as prescribed by Sigfusson.

“Often times, that’s enough — just bringing the right people together for a conversation,” Holst said.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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