Stockfish production provides a livelihood for the majority of the approximately 600 residents of Røst.

Norway has a long history as a seafaring nation, and fishing continues to provide a livelihood to many residents today. The number of people relying exclusively on fishing for a living has shrunk considerably in the past couple of decades, however, due to restrictions put in place by the government in the late 1980s, both in terms of the number of people given permits to fish, and the number of fish that each fisherman is allowed to catch.

Norway’s highly regulated fishing industry is said by some to be a model for sustainability. However, it also creates a sort of monopoly within the industry, as it’s difficult for young people to get a start with their own businesses due to the near impossibility of obtaining a permit, along with the high costs involved in purchasing the permit, the boat, and all the required equipment for the boat.

Fish Stock

In northern Norway, the most important fish stocks are cod and salmon. Norway is home to one-third of the world’s wild Atlantic salmon stock. The Lofoten Islands contain the largest cod stock in the world, and are a prime spot for cod spawning. Other fish species found in the seas and lakes in northern Norway include haddock, halibut, herring, mackerel, coalfish, and more. In fact, more than 200 species of fish and shellfish can be found overall in Norway’s coastal waters.

The Fish Farm Controversy

A salmon farm located in the fjord not far from Digermulen.

More than half the world’s seafood now comes from aquaculture (fish farming), and Norway is part of this equation. The percentage of Norwegian exports consisting of farmed seafood (62%) is now larger than its percentage of wild-caught seafood (38%). Fish farming, however, is a controversial topic, and the Earthducation team will learn more about it as they speak with fishermen and other locals in the north.

So, why are fish farms controversial? Although they offer income for local communities and a possible means for sustainably managing seafood, there are a number of environmental concerns surrounding fish farms, including:

  • They can be a major pollutant of the waters where they are housed.
  • Farm-raised fish are often fed large quantities of wild fish (e.g., it takes more than 3 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon).
  • They can be breeding grounds of disease, which can spread to the wild populations of fish in the surrounding waters.
  • When they escape their pens, farm-raised fish may compete with or interbreed with wild fish, potentially outcompeting or altering the genetics of native species.

Farm-raised fish are typically fed large amounts of feed composed of smaller, wild ocean fish, taking food away from declining wild fish populations. Fish farms have also been known to pack fish tight in pens or ponds that are rampant with disease and pollution from fish waste. That waste, which is estimated to be at levels high enough to equal the sewage from a town of 20,000 people, can enter coastal waters and in turn create low-oxygen dead zones that kill marine life. Lindsey Blomberg, July 25, 2011, “Does the U.S. Need More Fish Farms?” E-The Environmental Magazine

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website notes that fish farming can be done in environmentally safe ways, however, and that can offer sustainable means to feed the world’s growing demand for seafood.

Cod Fishing and Stockfish Production

Atlantic Sea Cod, Norway. Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld.

During January into about April, cod from the Barents Sea migrate to the waters around the Lofoten Islands to spawn. The largest cod stock in the world can be found in the Lofotens during this time. However, from year to year, it’s always unknown exactly how far south the cod will come.

The migration of the cod is closely tracked as they begin their travels south from the Barents Sea as there have been years when the cod did not make it as far south as the Lofotens. It is unknown for certain why, but there is some speculation that it is influenced by ocean temperature. For example, the year before last, when the seas were slightly warmer, the cod harvest was poor, but this year, 2011, when the seas were a degree cooler than the year before, was a boom year, with the largest populations of cod ever recorded in the area.

Drying cod hanging on racks on the island of Røst.

Much of the cod stock is dried and then exported to other countries, with Italy being the prime importer of this dried “stockfish” from Norway. Before the cod are dried, their heads are cut off (this has to be done in a very specific manner or the cod are unusable), their insides are gutted, and their bodies are tied by the tails into pairs and draped over wooden racks outdoors, in row upon row upon row. The dried bodies are what actually get exported.

The cod heads are also used. The tongues are cut out before the heads are hung out on drying racks, separate racks from where the bodies have been hung (the smell of the drying cod heads can be quite overpowering). The cod heads are generally not used for human consumption, but are instead often crushed and used as animal fodder.

Children usually complete the task of cutting out the tongues, which are a delicacy in the Lofotens and elsewhere. The school in Røst, the southern island in the Lofoten chain where fishing still provides a primary livelihood to the vast majority of residents, makes an effort to cut back on homework during the winter when the primary cod harvesting is going on, so that the kids can have time to work at the fisheries. Kids can actually earn quite a bit of money cutting out the tongues, and it teaches them business skills as well, as they’re responsible for finding buyers for the tongues. The buyers might be a fish receiving company, another business, or an individual.

Why Stockfish from the Lofoten Is So Popular in Italy

Pietro Querini's travel route to Røst, where he was shipwrecked.

“Stockfish” is the name for the dried cod. The history of the connection between Italy and stockfish dates back to 1432 when Pietro Querini and his crew were shipwrecked on one of the outlying islands of Røst. They subsequently spent the winter there, rescued in the spring by local fishermen, who introduced them to stockfish. This event led to the beginning of a long history of trade between Røst and Italy, and the popularity of stockfish in Italy that continues to this day. Read more about Pietro Querini and his shipwreck on the island of Røst.

Impacts of Climate Change on the Fishing Industry

In the course of the last 13 years, about 300 southern species have been found in the western part of the Barents Sea or outside Svalbard, a new report from the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management reads.” Barents Observer, August 9, 2011

There are a number of concerns about the effects that warming oceans may have on the species that inhabit them. Entire species may migrate farther north than where traditionally found, in search of cooler waters, for one, a trend that is already being captured in such studies as the one by the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management, mentioned above. If the cod were to stop traveling as far south as the Lofotens to spawn, the livelihood for many fishermen in northern Norway, and particularly in the Lofoten Island region, would be severely impacted.

A 2008 report from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Norway details impacts that climate change could have on a variety of natural-resource dependent industries, including fishing and energy production. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) produces a short fact sheet on the Effects of Climate Change on Arctic Fish, which may also be of interest to readers.


Minke whale skeleton found in the Norwegian Whalers' Museum in Reine.

Whaling is still practiced in northern Norway, but only the minke whale is hunted, and, like the fishing industry in general, whaling is highly regulated. The small Norwegian Whalers’ Museum in Reine is a great place to learn about this industry, and gives details about everything from the history of whaling in Norway to the changes in technology on the boats over time.

There are few whalers left in Norway today (only 18 whaling ships exist within the Lofotens, for example). Whaling is generally a family-run business and is practiced on small ships during the summer months with crews of 9 to about 13 people.

Whale meat is served in restaurants in northern Norway, but cannot be exported outside the country due to international bans against whaling.


Værøy from across the Moskenstraumen (maelstrom).

The Moskenstraumen is a spot in the Lofotens archipelago where strong tidal currents come together and battle for dominance. The fury of the battle and its exact location at any given moment morphs and migrates. It is not a place to boat or fish if you’re not a skilled seaman, and it’s not somewhere you want to be trapped when there’s a storm raging. The clash of currents can easily topple crafts of all sizes, and whirlpools can open up at any time.

Yet this area of the sea is rich in fish, and always seems to be so. The fish are drawn here, to this place where the seas are in constant motion, churning and frothing. Where the fish are, the fishermen follow. So, despite the danger, this area has always drawn fishermen.

Two small fishing communities, Helle and Refsvika, once resided at the southern tip of Moskenesøya in the Lofotens, with easy access to these fertile fishing grounds. There were no roads to these communities, and for most of their history, there was no way to communicate with them, short of taking a boat there. The villages sat on either side of a ridge of high rocky mountains. The children attended school in Helle. To get to the school, children from Refsvika climbed over a mountain. It was not an easy climb, steep and rocky and treacherous.

Eventually, the Norwegian government provided subsidies to the families in these two communities in the 1950s and asked them to move to more accessible areas within the Lofotens. The cost of providing services to these villages was simply too high. So the communities moved en masse, though they retained rights to the land in Helle and Refsvika, and some families continue to have small summer cabins there.