Nicole Cormier stands in the rain on a cold, windy day, pulling fish bones out of a big tub that she just picked up from a local fish cutter.
"We use all of it—tails, the heads, the guts, the skins, it’s all amazing parts of the fish to add,” Nicole said.
Nicole has started a business collecting fish waste from local seafood processors and fermenting this waste into a liquid garden fertilizer. She’s spent the past decade working as a nutritionist and says the project started from an obsession with microbes.
“I started this with a partner, Nicholas Frechette, and he is a chemical engineer so his passion is building soil. And it’s really very similar as talking about the digestive system and all the beneficial bacteria and how we need this healthy happy environment in our gut in order to properly absorb vitamins and minerals and the plants do too, we’re very very similar.”
Tiny, invisible microbes do the work of breaking down organic matter, whether it’s in our bodies or in barrels of fermenting fish waste like the one Nicole is filling now. Once she gets a good layer of fish trimmings covering the bottom of the barrel, she opens a bag of high quality raw sugar called panella.
“So there’s a ratio of 1 to 1, so however many pounds of fish waste, I do equal parts of panella,” she said.
This batch will be about 40 pounds of fish waste and 40 pounds of sugar—and it’s important that the fish waste is completely coated in panella, so Nicole fills the barrel in alternating layers. Once it’s full, she gives the fermentation a jumpstart with a handful of grains, seeds, and straw that are high in bacteria and mycelium, or spores of mushrooms and molds.
“We want to encourage the fungal development and this preparation gets the mycelium going and the mycelium is really a critical part of breaking down the fish. So I’m gonna go grab that.”
Nicole also grabs a small bottle of fermented liquid, a tincture of garlic and herbs that adds micro-nutrients. Finally, she covers the barrel and adds it to a line of other barrels of fermenting fish waste at various stages of decomposition.
"So these are the batches that will be being pulled relatively soon. I just have to snap the cover off here. And you can kinda see that some of the bubbling happening over the in the corner especially over there, there’s definitely lots of activity going, which that’s a really good sign.”
It’s amazing to see how much of the fish material—bones skins and all—has completely disappeared. It’s also amazing that it doesn’t smell quite as bad as you might imagine. What’s left is a bubbly dark brown liquid that will soon be packaged as a nitrogen and microbe-rich soil builder.
“You could use this on your house plants, you could use this in your garden, you could use this on a larger scale farm. It’s pretty sustainable in terms of covering a lot of ground."
Like other liquid fertilizers, fermented fish fertilizer is applied diluted—you add one tablespoon to a gallon of water. Nicole sees the fertilizer as a bridge—connecting our farming and fishing communities and completing a cycle that’s critical for both plant nutrition and our own.