Picture two scenes, one positive, one very much less so.
In the first, two University of Maine biomedical engineering graduate students, Patrick Breeding and Amber Boutiette, pore over the results of some late-night lab work. They’re looking at a protein from lobsters that seems to be key to the animal’s ability to regenerate lost limbs. This is not for credit; they’re in love.
Boutiette has terrible eczema, and it pains Breeding to see her hiding her face behind scarves. They’re developing an experimental lotion, built around that protein, which, until now, has been drained away in the production of food. Their experiment works beyond all expectations: Within weeks, Boutiette’s outbreak has vanished. Fast-forward four years, add the services of a business incubator called the New England Ocean Cluster, and their Portland, Maine-based company, Marin Skincare, sells the lotion online and through stores such as L.L. Bean.
In the second scene, the far less optimistic one, lawyers square off before the Supreme Court. It’s January 2024, and in a case pitting herring fishermen against the National Marine Fisheries Service, they’re arguing over who will bear the costs of scientific monitoring of fish populations under the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. At stake is the extent to which federal agencies can interpret such laws; the case could have far-reaching implications for the regulatory powers of agencies such as the EPA and FDA.
These scenes have a common backdrop: the decline of our fisheries, and the question of what can be done to help them survive. The version of the story that winds up in the Supreme Court is one we in the Northeast are too familiar with: Overfishing, habitat degradation, and climate change threaten to kill off a species, and the quotas, regulations, and expenses of protecting that species threaten to kill the livelihoods of coastal communities. Cue the conflict and rancor.
But in the version that leads to Marin Skincare, decline spurs not panic, but innovation. Enterprising people pool skills and knowledge with the common goal of creating more value from the same amount of catch. After all, a shocking amount of what’s caught ends up wasted: not just the 35 percent or more of all harvested fish that end up completely unused, but the skin, shells, bones, intestines, and other parts that don’t translate directly into food.
Case in point are Breeding and Boutiette, who, after that early stage of moonlit lab work, took their ideas to the New England Ocean Cluster, on the Maine Wharf in downtown Portland. There, they found advice, guidance, a network through which they could access lawyers and marketing specialists — all the things that nurture a startup business. They also found neighbors such as Luke’s Lobster, the environmentally-conscious seafood company that now helps supply Marin Skincare with the lobster byproduct it needs.
What’s happening at the incubator — diverse companies sharing knowledge and collaborating — is part of a movement in the fishing industry that has captured the attention of leaders of coastal states from Maine to Alaska.
Such clusters are poised to transform much more than just your choice of skin care. They may help clean toxins and plastics from the oceans, save burn victims, improve your energy drink, put healthier food on your plate, and remove toxic chemicals from your takeout containers — all while securing the livelihood of fishing communities and protecting marine ecosystems.
But to understand the tantalizing potential of this movement, one must first understand a lanky Icelandic businessman named Thor Sigfusson — and his “Silicon Valley of Cod.”
On a November morning, I walk into a gorgeous aquamarine-blue building on Reykjavík Harbor, a converted fish processing factory that sits among the boats and warehouses of a working waterfront. As a writer concerned with climate change, I’m searching for the hopeful side of conservation, and an Icelandic friend has told me I must visit the Iceland Ocean Cluster.
Opened in 2012, the Iceland Ocean Cluster is, I discover, a kind of shrine to cod, a key export of the Nordic country. A table inside displays some of the many cod-based products that have originated from the cluster. There are cod-leather wallets. There’s Collab, a cod-protein enriched energy drink that in Iceland rivals Coca-Cola for sales; enzyme-based treatments for colds, and others for stomach disorders. There’s fish jerkies, and bags of “Fish & Chips” with kettle-cooked potato chips and dried “Viking snack” cod. There are Omega-3 oils and cosmetics.
Sigfusson, the cluster’s founder, is a former CEO in the insurance industry who reinvented his career after the country’s banking system collapsed during the global 2008 financial recession. Inspired by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s insights into the competitive advantages of industries congregating near each other (think Silicon Valley with IT, or Boston with biotech and life sciences), Sigfusson began reimagining the local fishing industry, a key driver of Iceland’s economy.
Emphasizing relationships and shared knowledge, Sigfusson began connecting the pieces that would become the Iceland Ocean Cluster. He connected fishing companies with biotech startups, University of Iceland researchers with venture capitalists. Physical proximity mattered — research shows you can vastly increase collaboration among engineers, for example, by simply placing them next to each other. With his wife, an architect and designer, he fashioned the interior with glass walls and shared meeting spaces and artwork that underlined the mission of a “blue economy,” from murals depicting “The Incredible Fish Value Machine” to lamps made of cod. He put in small kitchens and forbid individual companies from owning their own coffee machines; he wanted people from different sectors talking to each other throughout the day.
From the beginning, Sigfusson focused on conservation and the recovery of rural fishing communities such as the Westman Islands, where he grew up, looking to get more value from the catch, and more creative forms of employment. Iceland has always been a fishing nation; although a member of NATO, the only wars it has fought in the last 500 years are the so-called Cod Wars, in which it prevailed over Britain and other European nations whose fishing boats were muscling in on its territorial waters. It has seen its share of collapsed fisheries, including herring. A strict quota system imposed in the 1980s saved its cod, which are now rated as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, but led to fishing industry consolidation, dealing a blow to the traditional livelihoods of many small towns on the coast.
Sigfusson began with a Michael Porter-inspired analysis of the industry, re-envisioning fishing not as simply the act of gathering and processing a natural resource, but as a hub for industries to congregate, from pharmaceuticals (cod liver oil, vitamins) to nutrition (collagen from fish skin) to logistics. This view showed fishing represented a much larger share of Iceland’s economy than analysts had thought — up to 35 percent of its total gross domestic product.
Sigfusson’s updated concept of fishing also changed the idea of who worked in fisheries-related businesses, from a male, family-driven, older, and shrinking workforce, into one that was younger, gender-balanced, and dynamic. It threw open the doors of opportunity to a wide range of businesses, putting marketers next to supplement makers, fashion companies next to artists, educational institutions next to fly-fishing excursion specialists. Iceland was already thriftier than most other nations in using its catch, shipping the split heads to Africa and processing the skin and bones into fish meal, but Sigfusson aimed for (as he titled his second book, and emblazoned on the walls of the cluster) “100% Fish.”
According to Sigfusson, 70 percent of the cluster’s companies have collaborated in some significant way with each other, from a maker of high-end Icelandic salts taking an engineering problem to a fish processor, to Eylíf, a retailer of joint-pain and other supplements, sourcing key ingredients from a neighboring company. Conservation efforts can also collaborate: the Six Rivers Project, focused on saving wild Atlantic salmon, has an office across the hall from Optitog, a company perfecting a technology to herd shrimp by using lights instead of scraping them up with bottom trawlers that damage fish habitat.
The model has led to breakthrough successes, both for companies physically in the cluster and throughout the industry. One surprising product is a bandage refined from cod skin that helps burn victims and diabetics with wounds that wouldn’t otherwise heal. The maker, Kerecis, held its first investor pitch at the cluster and has been called Iceland’s “first biotech unicorn.” It sold last year for $1.4 billion.
To walk into the New England Ocean Cluster in Portland is to witness the inspiration sparked by Sigfusson’s work. It’s another cheerfully blue building, situated on a busy waterfront that includes innovative companies such as Bristol Seafood, the first seafood company to earn a Fair Trade certification for seafood harvested in US waters.
There’s the same incredible range of businesses. Everything Seaweed processes naturally moisture-controlling seaweed into a coating that can replace the toxic PFAS — “forever chemicals” — lining our takeout containers and coffee cups. Finsulate’s nontoxic, sea-urchin-inspired hull coatings can replace the toxic antifouling paints currently leaching cuprous sulfates and biocides into the water from nearly every boat in the world. Opolis has a patented method of recycling ocean plastics into high-end sunglass frames and ski goggles.
The cluster took shape in 2014, when Patrick and Janeen Arnold, founders of Portland-based port management company Soli DG, made a trip to — where else? — Reykjavík Harbor. Deeply inspired by Sigfusson’s vision, the couple soon began work on their own cluster, inviting the Icelander to be a board member. Janeen Arnold drew on her background as a designer to transform the Maine Wharf space into glass-walled offices blending New England touches and a spare-yet-warm, distinctly Scandinavian feel.
With his cable-knit sweater and hair pulled back in an undercut bun, Patrick Arnold straddles the line between Mainer and tech biz guru as he shows me around what he and Janeen call the “Hùs” — the Icelandic word for house. He emphasizes the values of what he calls the blue economy: “We want enterprises that are profitable, environmentally sustainable, and inclusive of a workforce local to where the resources are.”
Talking to him, I’m struck by one more similarity between the clusters in Iceland and Portland: a leader able to put vast numbers of pieces together. According to Christian Ketels, an economist and, until recently, faculty member at Harvard Business School, cluster organizers facilitate connections not just among firms but between businesses, public agencies, and even educational institutions. (The New England Ocean Cluster has forged a partnership with the University of Southern Maine.) “The cluster leader sees things from a landscape perspective, and can identify both gaps and potential connections that others, in their silos, miss.”
The concept has piqued interest in coastal communities, as well as in Washington, D.C. In July, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Washington Senator Maria Cantwell introduced a bill that would put government money behind clusters nationwide; US Representatives María Elvira Salazar of Florida and Chellie Pingree of Maine put forth a bill in the House.
The bills are “bipartisan, bicameral, bicoastal,” says Michael Conathan, a policy specialist and tenant at New England Ocean Cluster. “There was input from clusters from every corner of this country,” he adds, citing examples from the Gulf Coast to California. In Massachusetts, the New Bedford Ocean Cluster, a project of the city’s Port Authority, is working to bring together the offshore wind industry and the East Coast’s biggest commercial fishery.
Murkowsi recently brought a group of Alaskans, including legislators and officials, to Reykjavík, where they toured the Iceland Ocean Cluster. “As soon as people got to the back and saw the table with all the products, everyone woke up — their brains started clicking,” she says.
“Right now, there’s more value from the skins than from the meat itself,” she continues. In Alaska, “we harvest a lot of fish, but historically there’s been a lot of fish waste. The skins were discarded. When you realize the value you can bring from that product . . . there should never be waste from a fish.”
Conathan notes that Canada has already taken these ideas and put serious money into backing what it calls the Canadian Ocean Supercluster, with ambitions to quintuple the size of its ocean-related economy.
One company you won’t see inside Portland’s cluster any longer is Marin Skincare, which now employs a dozen people and occupies a 3,000-square-foot office and warehouse in downtown Portland, though it remains, cofounder Patrick Breeding says, “a member for life” and evangelical about the model.
Outgrowing the space is a good thing, Arnold tells me. Profit, he points out, is a kind of sustainability: If a business generates value, then it endures without depending on grants, donors, or sometimes fickle government priorities.
Arnold, ever the facilitator, is eager to see the growth of clusters, even as close as Boston. “A place like Boston has incredible potential — but also what I like to call very powerful gravity,” he says. “It’s expensive to get started there, and fragile startups can get crushed.” He points to the nine years of work and learning at the New England Ocean Cluster that’s allowed it to bring the Scandinavian model to the United States. “In 2024, though?” he says, with a smile. “If we find the right partners — we’re ready. It’s time.”