Árni Páll Einarsson, chief commercial officer for Matorka, at Seafood Expo Global in Barcelona.

Shaken up but not stopped

Icelandic fish farmer Matorka has overcome losses and damage caused by volcanic earthquakes.

Published Last updated

There is a lot for fish farmer Matorka to like about Grindavik. The water it extracts from boreholes in the volcanic rock at its land-based farm on the Icelandic peninsula is warmed by lava to almost 10°C, perfect for the Arctic char it grows.

The site is also supplied with clean geothermal electricity, and it is close to an airport and a seaport for easy export.

But what nature gives with one hand it can take away with the other, as Matorka experienced last year when it was impacted by earthquakes and ground subsidence linked to volcanic eruptions that forced the evacuation of the nearby town of Grindavik.

Matorka's locations on the Grindavik peninsula. The farm is marked by the blue symbol, the hatchery by the pink symbol, and the airport and port by the green symbols.

“The quake went right through the middle of the processing plant and the farm, so a few of the tanks broke. We lost 75 tonnes of fish,” recalls chief commercial officer Árni Páll Einarsson during an interview with Fish Farming Expert at Seafood Expo Global in Barcelona last week.

What happens tomorrow?

Matorka has been able to carry on. Although the quakes caused structural damage and cracks in the floor that rendered Matorka’s Grinadvik processing plant unusable, it was able to quickly rent another facility around 25 miles away in Hafnarfjörður and move its equipment there.

Three out of 12 large grow-out fish tanks were damaged, but fish are still being produced in nine, and the cracks in the other three will be repaired this summer. The farm is insured, and insurance proceeds are expected to fully cover the cost of repairs. However, the probability of more geological disruption has prompted Matorka to look further afield for growth opportunities.

10,000 tonnes

Matorka’s 12 tanks have a capacity to produce up to 3,000 tonnes of fish a year, and the company has a permit for 6,000 tonnes of standing biomass at the site, which equates to an annual harvest of 10,000 tonnes. But will the company expand on its current site?

“We are looking at various options,” says Einarsson. “We firmly believe in the species and the enterprise, and we want to bring it to the 10,000-tonne level but we are looking at other locations (for expansion beyond 3,000 tonnes).”

A site with the same attributes might not be simple to find, though.

“The water is almost 10°C, perfect for Arctic char. If we go somewhere else, we may have to heat the water,” muses Einarsson, who also points out that the company’s permit is for its existing location.

30 tonnes per week

Matorka has four identical farming units, each comprising a newly-roofed raceway and three open tanks. The raceway is where the youngest fish go, growing from 100 grams at insertion to 200-250 grams, when they are moved into the big tanks.

“We currently harvest at around 850g, which is lower than normal,” says Einarsson, explaining that the loss of harvest-size fish because of the quake means Matorka must take smaller fish to keep supplying its customers. “Average size for a year is 1.4 kilos.”

The company has been producing about 1,000 tonnes of fish a year, rising to 1,200 tonnes last year.

“We’re harvesting about 30 tonnes a week. We would like to be at 40-50 tonnes, and we will be moving into that territory fairly soon,” says Einarsson.

Sweden and Finland

Sweden and Finland have a big appetite for Arctic char, he says, but Matorka also exports to Canada, the United States, Mexico, and to Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and Switzerland.

Around 90% of the fish are sold as fillets. “Salmon processing is an international standard and machines for that exist in the markets, but those machines do not exist so readily for smaller fish. So, we fillet the fish before it goes to market,” says Einarsson.

Matorka has its own hatchery and broodstock, which are from the Hólar University, a specialised higher education institution offering education in aquaculture and fish biology.

“They own the broodstock and sell eggs, but we have part of their broodstock to make our own eggs,” adds Einarsson.

Fine dining

Arctic char takes about 18 months from egg to harvest. It is a freshwater fish that can live in brackish water and can visit salt water for a few weeks but must then return to fresh water.

It sells at a fairly stable price point as a premium fish used in fine dining – “something that a chef can distinguish themselves with” – concludes Einarsson.