It’s a pretty small town now, with a population of 1,400, but used to be the fifth-largest in Iceland and has a fascinating and rather sad fishing history that provides an example of what overfishing can do to a town. In the beginning of the twentieth century, salted herring became one of the staples of Iceland’s economic growth – accounting for about 25% of Iceland’s total exports, and sometimes even higher. The first herring processing plant in Iceland was built in Siglufjörður in 1911, and it became a major center of fish processing, drawing thousands of workers from the countryside every summer until the herring fishery collapsed in the 1960s.
I had been interested in visiting the town even before the survey, both because it proudly advertises its history as a major center of the twentieth century herring fishery – they have an award-winning Herring Era Museum and even hold a Herring Era Festival during the first weekend in August where they demonstrate the old methods of herring processing – and because the town has already felt the ramifications of the cod quota cut. Even though Siglufjörður is not a cod fishing town, it has a shrimp processing plant owned by a company that also owns a share in the cod quota, and after the announcement of the cod quota cut, the company (called Rammi, after the Norwegian Viking Thormódur Rammi, the earliest recorded settler of the area) announced that it would be closing the shrimp plant in Siglufjörður and laying off all the workers (see article here). It wasn’t just the cod quota cut of course that forced the company to close the plant – the shrimp fishery in Iceland has been doing very poorly the past few years, and its value has depreciated as a combination of Europe’s preference for shrimp from Canada over shrimp from Iceland and the strength of the Icelandic króna, which is poor for exports. It goes to show how the cod fishery is interconnected with other aspects of life in Iceland – it’s nearly impossible to study cod without learning about a whole variety of other factors from shrimp fishing to tourism.
So before we left in the morning on Tuesday, I went to the Herring Era Museum to learn about the town’s history and about herring. I had seen my first herring in the trawls in the two days before we got to Siglufjörður, and one of the deckhands had told me that the herring (síld in Icelandic) was known as the silver of the sea. Possibly it got the name because it’s a beautiful fish – dark blue on top and shiny silver underneath – but I suspect it also has something to do with how profitable herring fishing was in the early twentieth century. The museum even goes so far as to say that the herring fishery was key to enabling Iceland to gain its independence from Denmark in 1944 by ensuring that the country could be economically independent.
While the herring fishery was in full swing from 1911 to the 1950s, and particularly after the 1930s when Icelanders gained ownership of the herring reduction factories from the Norwegians who first opened them, building the town as one of Iceland’s major ports and a center of economic activity, with a population almost three times the size of the town today.
Herring is a pelagic fish that tends to shoal, or school together in dense packs of fish, which made it easy to catch whole shoals of fish in Danish seine nets. Early methods of fishing from wooden dorries was later supplanted with the advent of large steel vessels that used acoustic fish-finding technology, but the concept of fishing out whole shoals of fish remained the same.
The herring catch was used in a variety of ways – some was salted an exported as food, while some was processed in herring reduction plants. To salt the fish, workers would come from all over the countryside to help with the salting in the summer months. These were mostly young girls, known as herring girls, who layered the fish with salt inside barrels to prepare them for export. The joke that describes the festive atmosphere of life in the months that the girls were in town goes that a woman was asked if she was ever married, and she replied, “No, but I was in Siglufjörður in 1963.” Apparently the collapse of the fishery in 1968 was felt as a particular blow among teenage boys who never had a chance to benefit from that aspect of the herring fishery.
The main portion of the museum is housed in the old “Roaldsbrakki,” which while in use contained part of the salting line where the herring was processed, the office where workers were paid weekly, and workers’ quarters for up to fifty employees, mostly women. The museum shows some of the rooms where the herring girls lived while in town – I don’t know whether the presentation of the girls’ belongings in the museum is entirely authentic, but I liked this room in the attic next to the room with the bunks, which showed nylon stockings hanging to dry alongside a batch of saltfish.
One of the buildings in the museum is a recreation of the Grána fish meal and oil factory, where salted herring not sold as food was cooked, mashed, separated, dried, and packaged for export.
The oil extracted from the fish was used for a whole variety of purposed from paint to cosmetics and soap to margarine. The fish meal remaining was then dried and ground before being packaged into 50 and 100kg bags to use for animal fodder in Europe and North America.
What struck me most about the way the history was presented was how proud the town remains of its involvement with the herring fishery – the museum mentions that after the herring collapse, the town turned to cod, capelin, and shrimp, but nothing, they said, could replace herring. It reminds me a lot of the way towns in Newfoundland are described after the cod collapse – even when they move on, they don’t lose their allegiance to their history. Siglufjörður at least seems to have made the best of its situation, using its history to develop itself as a tourist destination with an excellent museum and festivals that draw people from all over the country. Maybe this is the right approach to a collapsed fishery, maintaining the traditions and history as best as possible but for tourism rather than for actual profit through the fishery. It’s hard to tell what will happen in Siglufjörður if fishing and fish processing continue to diminish, but it provides a telling example of what might happen in other fishing towns in Iceland if cod and other fishing stocks were to collapse.