Sigurdur “Siggy” Jonsson, captain of the Thorfish vessel Hrafn Sveinbjanarsson GK-255, which supplies Xpressfish with frozen at sea Icelandic cod and haddock, discusses life at sea as well as fish prices and availability
How many years have you been an Icelandic fishing vessel skipper?
I have worked on my current vessel, the Hrafn Sveinbjarnarsson, for 27 years, having started as a deckhand and working my way up to become skipper, a post I have now held for the past 20 years.
What makes the on board facilities on your vessel best equipped for the task of fishing in some of the world’s most hostile sea conditions?
For the past four years, we have been carrying out 13 trips a year in often extremely challenging seas. We are in fact well-equipped to be at sea for up to 40 days at a time. Though it was launched in 1986, the Hrafn Sveinbjarnarsson GK-255 is a state-of-the-art fishing vessel, thanks to continuing investment in hygienic and efficient onboard facilities. This includes the high standard of crew accommodation with a gym and sauna. On the production side, as we catch fresh cod and haddock, our onboard expert filleters work quickly in hygienic surroundings so that 80% of the catch is filleted and fast-frozen at sea within three hours to seal-in the freshness.
An important part of our process and to maintain the highest standards of quality, every fish caught must go through our onboard bleeding tanks. This extra care ensures our fillets remain beautiful and white and undamaged by blood left within the fillet. After going through the bleeding tanks, we cool the fish by one degree in liquid ice, which preserves the freshness of the catch.
To enable us to spend longer at sea, a large centre extension was added just over a year ago to provide increased bleeding tank capacity. The tanks use actual seawater to retain the natural taste, quality and appearance which make our fish extra special.
What formats of fish does your vessel supply?
Our vessel has the capability to catch, process and supply frozen at sea fillets, skin on, skinless, skinless and boneless, headless and gutted fish and whole fish (mainly for Asian markets).
How has this changed over the years in response to changing demands from the fish and chips shop sector and with advances in technology?
The UK market has definitely changed, with friers adopting a more professional and quality-conscious approach to meet the business challenges of multiple fast-food chains and changing customer demand. We aim to meet the expectations of discerning friers through our focus on sustainability, improvements in quality assurance, investment in increased numbers of onboard bleeding tanks, automated grading machines, fishing sensors, use of the internet and digital technologies. We are also committed to ensuring our crew fitness and welfare is not forgotten and, for instance, installed an on-board gym during our last refit.
We’ve heard the seas around Iceland are good breeding grounds for fish, why is that?
The ocean off Iceland is rich with minerals and, combined with strong currents, is a perfect environment for the best tasting fish. Icelandic fish tastes great for good reasons: Iceland’s geology between two of the earth’s tectonic plates has created a bountiful mineral-rich underwater environment providing the perfect, most nutritious, feed for the fish. Added to this, the rugged seabed terrain and strong ocean currents dictate that Icelandic fish must be very powerful swimmers. This special combination of quality feeding and vigorous exercise is the key to why Icelandic Thorfish looks and tastes so good. It simply doesn’t get any better!
What volume of fish does the vessel handle?
We are an efficient vessel, thanks to our expert processing teams and state-of-the-art hygienic processing rooms, with the capacity to catch and process up to 30 tons of whitefish a day.
How accurately graded are the fillets and how do you ensure this?
Thorfish has a good reputation for consistent, sustainable sizing and quality, much of which is down to our automated grading machines. Of course, we start with the fresh catches according to the seasons of year and at the moment, fish sizes are running large with good quantities of 32+ on cod and 16-32oz on haddock, with small sizes being scarce.
How are prices looking currently?
Fish prices are at an all-time high. A major factor is increased world demand in emerging markets in Africa, South America, Asia and the Far East. There has also been a two-pronged backlash as a result of the weak pound, which would have been more manageable if its drop in value against other currencies had been more gradual. With around 97% of fish consumed in England being imported and all prices traded in foreign currencies: Icelandic Krona, Norwegian Krona, Danish Krona (Faroe Islands), and US Dollar (Russia), it was inevitable there would be a rapid hike in fish prices. Unfortunately from an Icelander’s view, this meant that our crews saw a big and sudden drop in their incomes, resulting in a historic strike and no Icelandic fish landings for two months. Having reached an agreement, Icelanders are now very busy catching up on our fish quotas and whilst prices will be more stable, it may be some time before we see any softening in prices due to the other global demand factors already mentioned.
How much can you do to ensure fish will be available in quantities to keep it at the heart of Iceland’s economy into the future?
Many Icelanders depend on fishing and we were pioneers in fish sustainability, with the whole community taking a collective approach for decades to maintaining healthy fish stocks for future generations. That goes further than applying quotas; it is perhaps also because Iceland has a small population and we all know each another that a common fellowship and responsibility is in the Icelandic psyche. Which ever way you look at it, Icelanders are committed to protecting the quality and quantity that makes Icelandic fish so popular with the UK fish frying industry.