Friday, July 13, 2007

Processing fish

Yesterday I got my first look at some large cod up close, and lots of it. Part of the way the MRI keeps track of the fish stocks here is by sampling the catches brought in by the commercial fishing companies, and I went along to the fish plant to watch and help a bit. Hreiðar and Hlynur, who took me along, had obviously done this many times before – Hlynur said they go a few times a month to different plants in the area – but I turned out to actually be of some help because the computer wasn’t working properly and they had to resort to that old-fashioned method of recording data with pencil and paper.

For each of the species they sampled – cod, haddock, and redfish, which are the three most important commercial species here – they measured the lengths and weights and collected the ear bones (called otoliths) which can be used to determine the age. The information from this type of sampling from commercial catches along with similar data from the annual surveys goes into an algorithm that is used to determine the size of each year class of fish in the population, which the MRI then uses to make a quota recommendation for how much fish should be caught in the coming year.

In addition to seeing how the sampling was done, I also got a chance to see the inside of an Icelandic fish processing plant. I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one from the Museum of Industry (a little outdated, but gives you something of the idea):

The first thing about this fish plant is that they’re very clean and very efficient. There was a whole process of taking off shoes, walking through to another room and putting on gowns and plastic coverings over hair and exposed clothes, and then walking somewhere else to put on rubber boots before going in, to make sure that the processing area stays clean. Just walking through, I could see most of a very complicated assembly line, from boxes of iced fish being dumped onto a conveyor belt to neatly-filleted fish at the end. There were a lot of workers, each sorting or cutting or moving the fish through some part of the process. It’s a lot of jobs, and Hreiðar says the pay is pretty good, but apparently Icelanders don’t really want to work in fish plants, so many of the workers are immigrants from Poland or Taiwan. A number of people have mentioned to me that the fish plant workers are largely immigrants, and unlike in the US where many people seem to begrudge immigrants even jobs that Americans don’t want, the Icelanders seem to think it’s a good thing that people want to come and do the jobs that they don’t want themselves. The plant also is efficient in using all parts of the fish – the heads are dried and exported to Nigeria, where apparently they are a delicacy, and the carapace once the head and fillets are removed is also saved for things like soup.

Since I was there with so much fish, Hreiðar also took the time to show me some of the different fish species. There was one bin with examples of each of the major species, which he showed to me. Of course, the only one I actually could identify on my own was the cod (and only because I’d had to show a diagram of it in my presentation for biology last semester). The nice display of fish turned out to be there for a school group of kindergarteners who came through on a tour while we were there. Which goes to show once more how important the fisheries are here – other than on Mr. Rodgers, I never saw any factories at all growing up, and no one would think to take a kindergarten class in the US to see different kinds of fish – but in Iceland, pretty much everyone knows something about the fish and the fisheries.

What I was most impressed by was how routine it seemed for the MRI to come and sample and how compliant the commercial fishery seemed to be with the government regulations. They brought over boxes of fish for the sampling as Hlynur asked for them and Hreiðar pointed out the tags on the boxes of undersized fish, which have to be reported separately (but not thrown back as unreported bycatch, which is illegal). Maybe I’m overly-cynical about fisheries elsewhere, but most US companies don’t seem to get on well with environmental regulators and wouldn’t be so nonchalant about having the scientific monitoring agency coming through their factories. No one’s a big fan of the MRI right now, since it recommended the 63,000 ton cut in the cod quota for next year that the Fisheries Minister decided to follow in making the quota decision, announced last week, but these big commercial companies at least seem to be willing to follow the rules even if they don’t always agree with them. I’m probably getting a skewed picture, since I came in with the MRI and even when I talked with someone who works at Samherji (the second biggest fishing company by quota percentages) I’m probably still getting the “what we tell outsiders” shpiel, but even considering that, it seems that the cooperation with the MRI is much better than I’d expect to find other places…I guess I’ll have to see.

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