Inside Bergie’s process plant one January morning, a conveyor belt moved freshly caught grey sole to the filet tables.
“The skeletons are gonna to go the lobstermen,’’ David Stanley, vice president of operations, explained. “Now, the meat is gonna go to us the consumer….All the trimmings all go down for cat food and animal pet food and things to that nature.”
Those “trimmings” include fish heads, skin and any of the innards not sold for human consumption.
On this day, the filet machines were turned off;the catch was smaller so the workers were doing all the deboning by hand. A worker coming off a shift break paused to sharpen his knife.
The next stop: a table lit from underneath. “See these lights right here?” Stanely said. “This is called a candling table. Every piece of fish here goes across the candling table.”
A half-dozen women wearing hair nets and rubber gloves lay the filets, one by one, on the candling table and examine them. The light underneath the table illuminates the flesh, allowing them to remove any impurities.
The processing plant usually produces anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 pounds a day of “chowder” or trash, Celestino Cacaj, a Bergie’s supervisor, said. “We have all the trash from the fish after we clean them we sell to the customer who make pet food,’’ he said. “They pay some money for that so we keep it for them. We try to make a little money. '' They make a little money. But could they make more?
New Bedford Port Director Edward Anthes-Washburn thinks the answer is yes. He says just look at Iceland.“They’re doing things like using collagen in the fish for different cosmetics,’’ Anthes-Washburn said. “But they’re also doing things like using fish skin for wallets and belts and things like that.”
Iceland’s fishing industry also is making more money even though it’s catching fewer fish. And given the catch limits on ground fishing, that’s an approach that appeals to Anthes-Washburn.
“Massachusetts and New England in general is one of the biggest biomedical and pharmaceutical areas in the country or in the world,’’ he said. “Are there parts of the fish that we’re landing in New Bedford every day that can benefit the biomedical industry?"
Anthes-Washburn and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell signed a partnership agreement last September with the founder of the Iceland Ocean Cluster. The agreement links New Bedford with a global network to share ideas and business opportunities for the port’s fishing industry.
"It could really be a game-changer for a place like New Bedford,'' Anthes-Washburn said.
Since the 1980s, Iceland has transformed its fish processing, Thor Sigfusson, founder and chairman of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, said.
“The value of the fish has nearly doubled, the value of the whole fish,’’ Sigfusson said. “We still have the filet being a big part of the fish value. But the growth is in the byproducts.’’
In other words, Iceland has turned fish trash into gold. And New Bedford officials are hoping to cash in, too. But to do that, they’ll need to make significant changes to the way fish is handled at sea -- and how it’s processed at plants like Bergie’s Seafood.
For now, Bergie’s is still serving up its leftovers to pet food companies -- and that’s just fine with my feline neighbors, Loretta and Larry.