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How the life sciences sector uses marine residuals to create sustainable products

Norwegian life sciences companies are finding new ways to extract useful compounds from marine residual materials, leading to innovations in health, medicine and food production while building a blue circular economy.Published 9 Mar 2023 (updated 30 May 2024) · 5 min read
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In terms of mass, 35 per cent of the harvest from fisheries and fish farms is residual materials. These are biological “leftovers” after the primary product has been extracted – for example, skin, guts, heads and bones from fish and shells from shellfish.

“Both aquaculture and pelagic fisheries create a high volume of residual material,” explains Hanne Mette Dyrlie Kristensen, CEO of The Life Science Cluster.

“For example, only about two thirds of a salmon’s weight can be sold as fillets. The question is: What do we do with the rest? Do we throw it back into the ocean, sell it as pet food, or can we find new, higher value use for it?”

The Life Science Cluster is a network for companies and organisations in industries for which the life sciences are key. The cluster promotes the development of new technology and higher value products in health, medicine, and the marine, agriculture and forestry sectors. This includes the use of marine residuals, which contain proteins, oils and other compounds that can be extracted and made into valuable products.

Norwegian companies are already adept at not letting marine residuals go to waste. Approximately 82 per cent of the harvest from Norwegian fisheries and fish farms is utilised in one way or another. Nevertheless, Kristensen would like to see an even higher percentage.

“We want to increase the use of marine residuals because it is a way of ensuring sustainable and circular resource use. Making sure to use every ounce we harvest is also a way of showing respect for marine life.”

Woman presenting
Hanne Mette Dyrlie Kristensen, CEO, The Life Science Cluster.

Norway is a world leader in “blue” life science

There are many products that can be made from marine residuals. Kristensen explains that Norwegian companies are continuously discovering untapped potential, based on synergies between industries.

“A good example is Arctic Bioscience, a company that uses herring roe to extract useful compounds for pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplements. Herring roe is a new resource in this respect; previously it has been discarded completely during the processing of herring.”

Arctic Bioscience is one of many companies in a burgeoning Norwegian life sciences sector.

“The life sciences sector develops solutions to the greatest challenges of mankind, and helps us to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our members contribute to sustainable food and feed, new drugs and better health, and green solutions that contribute to reduce CO₂ emissions and utilise resources in a better way.”

According to Kristensen, Norway’s life sciences sector has one unique advantage, namely synergies with the marine sector.

“Compared to the rest of Europe, the Norwegian life sciences sector is very ‘blue’ — that is we have a unique grounding in and connection with marine industries.”

Norwegian waters are teeming with fisheries and fish farms, and the seafood industry is Norway’s second largest exporter.

“We are fortunate to be closely connected to a vibrant marine sector. This puts us in a unique position to create value from untapped marine resources,” says Kristensen.

“But marine companies, although possessing unrivalled insight into marine value chains, don’t necessarily have a lot of experience working within the life science framework. This is where we come in, to help to bridge the gap between the life science industry and marine companies,” she says.

That is why The Life Science Cluster works closely with marine clusters like NCE Blue Legasea and Biotech North which have a strong focus on building new and sustainable value chains with marine resources.

“Together, we are able to support development of new opportunities for using marine residuals in the life sciences sector.”

Antarctic krill.

High-quality marine raw materials mean high-quality residual materials

Kristensen also sees an opportunity for Norway to use marine-based life science to enhance its export potential in other sectors.

“Norway has an outspoken ambition of a fivefold increase in seafood exports by 2050. For this to happen, we need to innovate in matters such as the quality of aquaculture feed, which impacts fish health and welfare. Here we see promising developments in using marine residuals and residuals from other sectors. In that sense, there’s a double benefit to be gained: we promote the circular economy while potentially increasing the quality and sustainability of our aquaculture sector.”

In this undertaking, Norway can build on another advantage: the high quality of its raw material.

“Speaking of the aquaculture sector: Norwegian fish farms have the lowest rate of antibiotic use in the world. This is due in good part to the Norwegian company Pharmaq, which develops vaccines for fish. Globally, seven of 10 vaccinated farmed fish are vaccinated with Pharmaq vaccines.”

Other highly innovative Norwegian companies are also developing solutions to improve the health and welfare of farmed fish, while improving the quality of the final product. STIM has developed a solution to battle harmful Yersinia bacteria, which cause disease in production fish and can only be cured with antibiotics. The company uses bacteriophages –naturally occuring viruses that attack and kill specific bacteria without affecting the fish’s microbiome – in its groundbreaking, environment-friendly product.

Aker BioMarine, meanwhile, harvests krill in the Antarctic to produce nutritious, sustainable ingredients for aquaculture feed that offer significant health benefits to fish and shrimp and quality to consumers.

“The upshot,” says Kristensen, “is that not only are Norwegian fish products of high quality, but the products made from residuals are as well.”

Creating new marine exports to replace oil and gas

One of The Life Science Cluster’s focus areas is working with regulators to pave the way for new life science-based value chains, including marine value chains.

“This is a field where things move fast. We are in a position where the industry is coming up with products that no one had thought about when the rules and regulations were made. So we as clusters have to engage actively with the regulatory framework. We work with both Norwegian and European authorities to adapt the framework as the technology progresses and we find new uses for marine residuals.”

In spite of regulatory hurdles, Kristensen is optimistic.

“As a country, we must think long term about replacing our main exports: oil and gas. Although no single industry will become ‘the new oil’, I believe the Norwegian life sciences sector has significant potential for growth and job creation.”