A look at Jamie-Lee Cormier’s brightly coloured leather earrings and bracelets reveals something unexpected: the leather has scales.

That’s because it’s made with Newfoundland cod leather.

“Everyone’s always really amazed when they see it,” said the crafts producer who sells her products online. .

Jamie-Lee Cormier makes bracelets from cod leather and seal skin. (Jamie-Lee Cormier)

Though it may seem weird to Cormier’s Canadian customers, fish leather has been making a splash on international runways for a few years.

Christian Dior, Prada and Nike have all been experimenting with fish leather products, from shoes to handbags. It’s part of a growing worldwide movement to reduce waste in commercial fisheries and to make more money using less fish.

For those following innovation in sustainable fisheries development, it probably comes as no surprise that these fashion houses are getting their fish leather from Iceland.

‘Doing more with less’

“[Iceland] is focused on value from the entire fish,” said Carey Bonnell, head of the School of Fisheries at the Marine Institute in St. John’s. 

“They have a strategy right now in Iceland to get more value from the traditional waste stream than from the fillet. That’s a paradigm shift for them and for the industry as a whole,” he said in an interview. 

Carey Bonnell head of Marine Institute School of Fisheries

Carey Bonnell is the head of the Marine Institute’s School of Fisheries. He comes from a long line of fishermen in Forrester’s Point on the Northern Peninsula. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

“They plan to get more from the oils from the skins, from the heads from the livers, to go into pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and biomedical type applications, skincare products, you name it.”

Using more of the fish byproducts — the parts of the fish that normally go in the garbage — is all part of Iceland’s efforts to make more money with less fish, particularly with cod.

It’s a strategy Bonnell hopes will adopted in Newfoundland and Labrador as the cod slowly comes back.

“As we get critical mass, as we get scale, as our stocks continue to rebound – we hope – that’s the kind of model we need to look at in terms of full utilization, maximizing production, maximizing value per kilo of catch. Doing more with less.”

Bonnell says the real driving force behind Iceland’s innovation with byproducts is the Iceland Ocean Cluster Centre, in Reykjavík’s old harbour. It’s a home to researchers and an incubator for seafood companies who are working to get more value from each fish pulled from the water. 

Products made with cod

‘They have a strategy right now in Iceland to get more value from the traditional waste stream than from the fillet,’ said Bonnell. (Dr. Ogmundur Knutsson)

What about the other two thirds of the fish?

“A fillet is just 30 or 35 per cent of the fish,” said Wade Murphy, who runs the Marine Institute’s Bioprocessing Facility on Mount Scio Road in St. John’s.

“If all our product is sold as fillet, well, what are you doing with the rest of it?”

‘If all our product is sold as fillet, well, what are you doing with the rest of it?’
– Wade Murphy

Murphy and his team of researchers work with harvesters and processors to look at extending shelf life, improving packaging and developing entirely new products from the unused parts of the fish.

Wade Murphy runs the Bioprocessing Facility at the Marine Institute

Wade Murphy, who runs the Bioprocessing Facility at the Marine Institute, holds up a jar of biodiesel made from seal oil. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

They take a byproduct — like cod livers — and start by looking for a food application. Lately, they’ve been looking at whether there’s a viable market for fresh Newfoundland cod livers and cod roe.

If that fails, they move up the value chain to explore possible pharmaceutical, nutraceutical or medical uses.

In the case of cod livers, they’ve been looking at the concentration of omega-3 fats in cod liver oil.

They’re also trying to determine whether they can extract collagen from sea cucumber shells.  

Turning shrimp into gold

So far, their most successful projects have been with shrimp.

Astaxanthin is the pigment that gives shrimps its red colour. It’s also a powerful antioxidant. The researchers have been extracting and analyzing the astaxanthin from N.L. shrimp to see if it measures up.

Julia Pohling holds up oil coloured with Astaxanthin

Julia Pohling holds up oil coloured with Astaxanthin, a red pigment extracted from shrimp shells. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

They’ve also been turning shrimp shells into medical-grade chitosan, a fine white powder which has anti-inflammatory properties.

It’s used in bandages for burn victims and for other biomedical uses such as helping in bone repair. It can also be used in cosmetics as a wrinkle filler, and it can be sprayed onto food to extend its shelf life.

Carefully emptying a box of petri dishes filled with ground shells, Julia Pohling, a biotechnologist at the lab, refers to the chitosan as “the gold” because it nets such high profits on the market.

Lower quotas affecting research

Though they see a lot of potential in these products, plummeting shellfish quotas have affected their raw material supply and their shellfish projects are temporarily on hold.

Murphy thinks that’s exactly the wrong response to lower quotas – that now is the ideal time for industry to start shifting its focus toward by-products.

Shrimp and crab shells at Bioprocessing Facility Marine Institute

Shrimp and crab shells in different states of pulverization at the Marine Institute’s Bioprocessing Facility. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

“With shrimp, they’re only taking 30 per cent of the fish. Seventy per cent of it is being tossed,” he said.

“What a time now to go back and say, hey, let’s give you a way to utilize that shell, and extract value from what you’re throwing away.”

Cormier thinks fish leather has a lot of potential. It’s tough stuff, she said, and it can by dyed with bright, vibrant colours.

“The back is really grainy and has a lot of fibrous pieces, but the front is really smooth and pretty and almost resembles snakeskin even. I think they put some sort of glaze in the tanning process to keep the scales down.”

She’s almost out of her supply — she got it years ago from a woman in Corner Brook who bought it from a small tannery in Nova Scotia.

She’s hoping that by the time she needs to find more, she’ll be able to order it from an entrepreneur who’s set up shop in Newfoundland.  

Jamie-Lee Cormier makes bracelets from cod leather

Jamie-Lee Cormier sells her bracelets from her online shop, JL Designs. (Jamie-Lee Cormier)

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