Monday, April 7, 2008

From Sea to Stockfish: Lofoten’s Coastal Cod Fishery

Every year, for as long as people have lived in northern Norway, the winter has been a time for fishing. In January, the Barents Sea cod stock swims south from the coast of Finnmark to spawn along the coast of the Lofoten Islands, just north of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian coast. From January through April, coastal fishermen from Lofoten – and many visiting fishermen from all along the Norwegian coast (and increasingly also foreign sports fishermen, attracted by the lure of catching a record-breaking cod, perhaps as part of the World Cod Fishing Championships, described very nicely here) – set out in small day boats to catch the spawning cod as they come close to shore. Many people I met over the past six months had recommended that I go see the Lofoten fishery and I was curious to see the traditional inshore fishing fleet for myself, so even though I hadn’t initially included it is my plans for the year, I headed to Ballstad, a fishing village of just under a thousand people in the southern end of the Lofoten Islands, for a week in the middle of the peak cod fishing season in the end of March.

I arrived on the ferry the night before Easter, in the middle of Lofoten’s biggest snowstorm and coldest night of the year so far, to discover that – being the night before Easter – there were no buses running and no shops open for the next two days. Luckily, Mary Ann and Børge, the couple who own the rorbu (fishermen’s cabin – initially built around Lofoten to house fishermen visiting for the winter cod season, now mostly run as tourist accommodation for the summer months) I was staying in took pity on me and my poor planning (somehow I had just brought a jar of peanut butter as food) by inviting me for Easter dinner with their family. They made a Lofoten specialty called boknafisk, made from cod left out to dry on the fish drying racks for fourteen days, served along with potatoes and peas and a bacon and butter sauce. It was wonderful to have the chance to share a holiday meal with a local fishing family (in addition to running the rorbuer, Børge is a commercial fisherman on a coastal gill netter), and very tasty fish too.

Although I had not considered whether it would be a good idea to spend Easter in small Lofoten town (not normally celebrating Easter myself and all), it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to get to see the normal life of the community – including the place of cod in local culture. Since everything in town was closed for Easter, I did what seemed the normal thing to do – go to Easter services. Since I had never actually been to an Easter service before, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Norwegian and American Easter traditions. But the church – a 102-year-old red and green painted wooden cathedral with lots of stained glass and sunlight – was lovely and the music, hymns accompanied by an organ, trumpet, and choir, was beautiful, and I really enjoyed watching the service unfold (and even could mostly tell what was going on, with the help of explanations and translations by the woman I sat with).

The best part, though, were the families baptizing their babies as part of the service – which there were quite a lot of, since Norwegian families tend to all get together for Easter and so the baptisms wait until the whole family can be back at home. This was exciting first of all because it was fun to see all the babies in their lacy baptism dresses and little hats (I had also never seen a baptism before), but also because I got to see the mothers’ traditional Norwegian dress costumes. I didn’t take any pictures (even though plenty of people brought cameras and took pictures of the baptisms, I’m used to thinking of religious events as technology-free, and anyway it seems disrespectful to me to take pictures during a service, so I left my camera at home). But you can get the idea of what they look like here. The Lofoten costume is a blue floor-length dress and vest-like jumper top embroidered with flowers, worn along with a matching embroidered purse attached on the side and a cape used instead of a regular coat when going outside. My favorite, though, was the design worn by the woman sitting behind me: under an embroidered picture of two Viking ships heading towards the sun was an anatomically-correct cod, and on closer consideration I also noticed that her purse, rather than being embroidered, was decorated by silver charms in the shape of a cod covered over by a piece of green mesh with a silver clasp at the top in the shape of a fishing boat such that the purse looks like the boat has caught a net full of fish. Just in case I was wondering, cod is pretty important to Lofoten.

The next morning, I went out fishing with Børge on his boat, the Iversen Jr, to see how the coastal fishermen in Lofoten catch their cod.

Børge fishes nine months out of the year and catches a quota of 44 tons of fish (mostly cod, and other species such as haddock and saithe, which are measured for small boats like his in terms of cod-equivalents). He fishes with gill nets, which are set on the ocean bottom and “soak” for a day, collecting the fish that and the day I went out with him he was picking up fish from three sets of thirty nets each that he had set the day before. It was a very good day for fishing: by the end of the day we came back with 1,400 kilos of fish, Børge’s best catch so far this season. Obviously, I am good luck.

Here is the boat in the harbor - time to go fishing!

And after just a half-hour steam, we are on the fishing grounds (pretty gorgeous, huh?). This is another small gill-netting boat much like the Iversen Jr fishing alongside us. Note the sail, used not to actually move the boat but to help stabilize it against the wind, and the flag and buoy, marking the beginning of the net they are about to haul.
Børge soon locates the buoy marking his first set of nets and soon is hauling the net back aboard with all the fish that have been caught over the past day. The fish and net are pulled up by an automatic hauler, leaving Børge and his single crewmember free to just work untangling the fish and the net.

As the net comes in, it has to be untangled and stowed in the compartment aft, ready to be set again once all the fish have been removed - as Børge told me, we also need something to do tomorrow.
Both fishermen work to extricate the big fish from the net, using a tool that is both capable of gently untangling and of ripping apart the net to free the fish.

Once freed from the net, they quickly kill the fish by cutting at the gills, using the sharp end of the same tool used for detangling.
Most of the catch are big cod, but there are also occasionally haddock and plaice, which they also keep unless they are juveniles (which they try to free carefully before throwing them back), and crabs like this one, which although edible they mostly do not keep, but bang against the side of the boat to crush and get them out of the nets.

After they have finished removing all the fish from the net, and while it is being set back out for the next day's fishing, they remove the fish heads and guts, leaving just the portion that will be hung up to dry to make stockfish.

After hauling up the fish from all the nets and setting them back in the water to catch the next day's fish, we head back to harbor to land the fish to the small fish factory that will dry the fish to make Lofoten's signature product - stockfish. Known as tørrfisk in Norwegian, and sold as "bacalao de Noruega," mostly to Italy, this transformation of the cod is what makes Lofoten's cod fishery world-renowned.

At the factory, they use a crane to haul the fish off the boat.
In the factory, any fish that the crews didn't get a chance to head and gut on the boat are prepared onshore. Note that rather than discarding all the offal, the roe - the female's pouches full of pink eggs - and the livers are saved to eat. Another choice piece used in Lofoten cooking, the cod's tongue is cut from the heads by a young boy - this is traditionally a job saved for young people as their first introduction to the fishing industry.From the factory, the fish are put into fish boxes and onto tractors and taken out the fish racks to be hung to dry.There were crews out hanging fish all the time while I was in Ballstad, and I stopped to watch on group hang up a batch of fish.
Along, as it so happened, with an English television film crew producing a short spot on the Lofoten fishery. Yet another testament to the world-wide reputation of the Lofoten cod fishery.The men were working in pairs: one man on the tractor picks up the fish (bound together as a pair), and then hands up to another up near the top of the racks who hangs it over a wooden pole.As this worker explained to us, each rack can hold tens of thousands of fish, and hanging the entire catch to dry is a full time job during the winter fishing season - they work all hours of the day, from early in the morning when the boats are heading out until ten and eleven at night. They also keep busy the rest of the year, since after the fish is done drying in June it needs to be taken back down, sorted based on its quality, and then prepared for export.
The drying racks are found in seemingly every bit of free space on the islands part of the incredibly picturesque scenery of Lofoten.
Most people even had a few fish hanging to dry on the side of their houses, providing their own supply of stockfish for the coming year.
Here's what the drying fish looks like up close.
And the heads, also dried, and mostly sold to Africa (some are also bought by the Norwegian government and given to the poor in developing countries as government aid).
I thought it was pretty cool to be able to walk around and watch the fish drying. So much fish!
And, to finish off the experience and see the process from start to finish, I also had the chance to taste some proper Norwegian cod. In addition to the boknafisk I had with Mary Ann and Børge's family on Easter, they also invited me the night I went out fishing on the boat to eat some of the fresh fish catch prepared in classic Norwegian style - boiled fish and roe served with potatoes, carrots, butter and liver sauce. An excellent end to a fantastic chance to see Lofoten's coastal cod fishery, a continuation of centuries of fishing tradition that will hopefully last for centuries to come.


michaela said...

Hi Hilary!

it is great that you could have experienced that.It is my life time dream to work as a fisherwomen. I am finally in Norway and I am on a mission to find a job on a fishing boat here. Your story is very inspiring and educational. If you have any recommendations for me, please fell free to share it with me. Good luck to you on your adventures.

stanley mack said...

Hillary. I don`t know if my last comment made it through to you ..anyway,I was able to visit the Lofotin Island a couple of years ago,and I must say that was a great experiance..I would like to find out more about the net that are used to fishing cod..we have a lot of cod out here .I would like to get a picture or a video of the operation,,If that is possible..Thank you very much..Stanley Mack