Steinunn Gunnsteinsdóttir Fish Leather admits that it took her family more than a few tries to be able to make skins from fish skins.
“The first 200 times we made smelly fish soup,” she says.
Ms. Gunnsteinsdóttir is the sales manager for Icelandic company Atlantic Leather. Which owns the only fish tannery in Europe.
Overlooking a fjord on the remote northern coast of Iceland. It has been processing skins for salmon. Perch. Cod and wolf fish since 1994.
The tanning process takes three to four weeks. And 19 employees now produce 10.000 hides. Or nearly a ton. Of fish skins per month.
“The fish smell in the early stages disappears. Then it smells like any other skin.” Adds Gunstensdottir. The daughter of the founders.
The company sources all of its fish from sustainable stocks. Across the Icelandic. Norwegian and Faroe Islands fishing fleets. And unlike the worst examples in the global cowhide industry. The tanning process is as environmentally friendly as possible.
This process powers the geothermal energy prevailing in Iceland. And the company has equipment that enables it to reuse every drop of water eight to nine times in the production process.
Atlantic Leather also uses natural, non-polluting dyes
The price of their skins varies depending on the fish. But salmon skins sell for €11 (US$12.30; £9.42) per square foot.
Now supplying major European fashion firms Jimmy Choo. Dior and Ferragamo. Ms Gunnsteinsdóttir says it’s a misconception that fish skin should be thin and easy to tear.
“Fish leather is nine times stronger than lamb or cow leather of the same thickness,” she says.
“That’s because the fibers in fish skin crisscross rather than (move) up and down…it makes it a more durable leather for products that need to be really strong like shoes, belts, and bags.”
While fish hides currently account for less than 1% of total global leather sales, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is promoting its increased production as a way to increase the incomes of fishing communities around the world.
“We believe that fish hides is a way to improve people’s livelihoods in fishing communities without compromising their food security,” says Jackie Alder, chief fisheries industry officer in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture.
The increased availability of fish skin could also reduce the demand for snake and crocodile skins, which may come from endangered species.
Higher use of fish hides may, in the long run, lead to a decreased need for cowhide
However, the cowhide industry is closely related to the constant demand for beef. With the current rate of beef consumption in the world, the hides that were not turned into hides would become a waste problem estimated at 10 million tons annually.
Outside of the environmental costs of land clearing and methane emissions associated with cow hides, the industry says it has made efforts in recent years to improve production processes around the world.
Since 2005, the Leather Working Group’s trade association — whose membership includes Adidas, Nike and Primark — says it has been promoting environmentally responsible practices. This includes better standards for sewage discharge.
About 8,500 kilometers (5,280 mi) from Iceland, another company that now makes fish skins is the Kenyan Victorian Food Company.
With support from Jackie Alder and her team, the company uses indigo perch skins caught from Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, in the north of the country.
After three years in operation
Victorian Foods CEO James Ambani says the company now produces 400kg of leather per week, which sells for $5 a square foot.
The skin can be produced in large sizes because the Nile perch is a huge fish that can grow to six feet or two meters in length.
“It has made a huge impact on the community and new revenue has flowed into us, local fishermen who now get 30% more from every fish they sell,” Ambani says.
His company employs 10 women in its tannery, and is training an additional group to manufacture leather goods for fish.
And the FAO’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is now working with a Brazilian company called Coopescarte to develop easier and cheaper ways to produce fish hides.
Kenyan fashion designer Diba Dosaga recently used some naturally dyed fish skin from Victorian Foods for the first time.