For a Cold Fish, Look to the Sun

fish at market

For a Cold Fish, Look to the Sun

Rare, Mozambique and Ocean Excellence partner to pilot energy-efficient fish preservation
S.H. IrbyMarch 28, 2017

Fishing ports around the world have a movement to them, forming busy little cities built from stalls, supplies and salty air. Fishers refill their boats with bait and batteries, buyers take a look at the catch coming in, and children run between the grown-ups finding little tasks to earn extra cash. Amid this bustle, there’s a good chance of spotting a massive supply of ice making its way through the port in various hands. Ice — whether flake, plate, tube, block, crushed block, or whatever form into which it’s frozen and manipulated — has become a staple for fishers to pack onto their vessels, to help preserve their extremely perishable catch.

From the moment a fish leaves the water, it begins to quickly slip toward spoilage. When a fisher puts his catch on ice while still aboard his boat, he immediately begins to fight off and slow down bacterial, enzymatic and chemical action. With ice on hand, a fisher can sell higher quality fish, which can fetch better prices and travel further to feed more people, once on land.

Ice is currently the most popular cold storage method for many fishers, but it has its drawbacks, particularly in the developing world. The high electrical energy usage its production demands is problematic for a huge percentage of the global fishing population: small-scale fishers. Small-scale fishers account for 90 percent of the world’s fishers and bring in half of the world’s fish catch. Many are scattered throughout the developing world and lack access to the electricity needed for ice production — or any electricity at all.

This is the reality for small-scale fishers in Mozambique, where an estimated 2 million people are dependent on the fisheries sector. Lacking sufficient access to cold storage, Mozambican fishers are significantly cut off from capturing the full market value of their catch. Finding viable cold storage alternatives to ice, particularly energy-efficient, cost-effective chilling methods, is a development imperative in Mozambique. This year, Rare, Mozambique’s National Institute for the Development of Small-Scale Fisheries (IDEPA), and a private supplier of fish processing technology from Iceland called Ocean Excellence have joined forces in a public-private partnership to forge a solution.

Beginning this June, the three partners will collaborate on a three-year project to develop a cold storage prototype that will operate on solar and/or wind energy to power its chilling process (in contrast to an electrical grid or generator). Sun and wind constantly surround a fisher on his daily journey, and Rare and its partners aim to harness their power to make quality cold storage more accessible to small-scale fishers. The partners are now finalizing a startup grant with the Nordic Climate Facility, a unit of the Nordic Development Fund, to fund the prototype.

The prototype will be tested for use throughout the lifecycle of fisheries production — aboard fishing boats, at landings, during shipping and in markets — and will include a small heat pump system and system for power storage. To keep fish cold, the technology developed will harness energy to achieve superchilling — a process of reducing the temperature of fish just below that of melting ice — by using water with high salinity, or brine, to lower temperatures to levels where flesh starts to freeze. Ocean Excellence will create the prototype, which will go through several rounds of testing in Mozambique. The project aims to build the machine from affordable materials that can be locally sourced in Mozambique.

With new access to cold storage, small-scale fishers like those of Mozambique have a chance to increase the value of their catch, increase efficiency, and potentially help reduce overfishing.

Energy-efficient cold storage not only is a game-changing solution for fishers without access to electricity, but also provides an alternative for those who’ve pooled resources to maintain ice production. And its benefits for both people and the environment don’t stop there. With new access to cold storage, small-scale fishers like those of Mozambique have a chance to increase the value of their catch, increase efficiency, and potentially help reduce overfishing. Where there’s catch waste, overfishing can often follow: if 30 percent of a fisher’s catch spoils, for instance, he’ll likely feel the need to catch 30 percent more fish to maintain production.

Overfishing and destructive fishing practices drain a fishery of its long-term productivity and threaten coastal habitats and marine biodiversity. It’s a problem in both commercial and small-scale fishing in much of the developing world, including Mozambique. When overfishing causes damage to and depletion of Mozambique’s natural mangroves, reefs and seagrasses, the country and its people lose out on valuable natural capital. These rich ecosystems buffer the coast against climate change and provide food security and livelihoods. 

Last year, Rare and IDEPA embarked on an ongoing effort to stop overfishing and introduce sustainable fisheries management to communities along the country’s coast. Their approach to natural resource management lowers fishing pressure by limiting fishery use, granting local fishers exclusive rights to designated fishing zones (which are paired with marine protected areas). This year, they’ll incorporate the cold storage project into their effort, further lowering fishing pressure by improving livelihoods. Solutions like accessible cold storage help deter fishers from overfishing to boost their incomes. By reducing fish spoilage and waste, they make a better living by improving quality versus quantity of catch. While Rare and IDEPA work with fishers to prevent the collapse of their fishery, cold storage solutions afford fishers new economic opportunities by ensuring that the fish they catch will bring in higher income.

Rare, IDEPA and Ocean Excellence will complete the three-year cold storage project with final prototype construction in Mozambique, to give the country’s small-scale fishers immediate access to the product. Whether in curtailing overfishing or advancing the use of renewable energy, the goal is to make the prototype a form of cold storage that fishers and their communities can and will use, out on the water and back at their busy ports.