Lofoten’s legendary seasonal fishery

One of the world's largest seasonal fisheries takes place in Lofoten. From mid-February until the end of April, Lofoten is full of life. The Arctic cod migrates from the vast, nutritious areas of the Barents Sea in its millions, en route to the spawning grounds near Lofoten to continue the species.

2013-06-1912:04 Mariell Hagen

Commercial fishermen from the entire coast of Norway participate in this fishery. Join us and see if the fish are biting! Experience the atmosphere and the excitement out at the fishing grounds. One thing is certain; you won't be bored with the view while you are waiting for the fish to bite! You might see a flock of sea eagles waiting for some fresh food or the steep Lofoten Mountains that plunge straight down into Vestfjord.

Cod – from food to export commodity

The cod represents the long lines in the history of fishing in Norway and in the history of Norway. The cod fishery and the production of cod products represent stability and tradition, but also interaction between Norway and many other countries. There are several cod species, coastal cod and North Sea cod for instance, but we are talking here about by far the largest and most important stock, today and throughout history, the Northeast Arctic cod. Today we share this resource with Russia, on the basis of the ecology and extent of occurrence of the cod stock.

Every winter the Northeast Arctic cod sets off on a journey – to migrate – on an annual and dangerous journey when it reaches the age of six or seven. It is then an adult and has reached sexual maturity; ready to spawn for the first time and carry the cod stock forward. Not all the cod swim as far. Some of the stock spawns off the coast of West Finnmark and others as far south as the Trøndelag coast, off the coast of Møre and right down by Stad. But the majority have always headed towards Lofoten; a chain of large and smaller islands that juts out into the sea at the northern tip of Nordland County; firstly Hinnøya, then Austvågøya, Gimsøya, Vestvågøya, Flakstadøya, Moskenesøya, and farthest out, Værøy and Røst.

Since time immemorial, the majority of the spawning has taken place on the southern side of the islands, on the inner coast. Here, facing the wide expanses of the Vestfjorden, we have reason to believe that humans have exploited this natural phenomenon since far, far back in history and fished the spawning Arctic cod with primitive tools and small and flimsy vessels. Lofoten’s islands and mountains have provided a certain amount of protection against the weather and forces of nature in the Norwegian Sea on the outer coast and the rich and concentrated abundance of large spawning fish has given good opportunities to get acceptable catches.

Each female cod spawns an enormous number of eggs, as many as four million, but the mortality rate is dramatic. Only a tiny number of individuals survive the first critical phase. And more dangers await; after hatching and when the food in the amniotic sac is used up, the extremely young cod juveniles must start to feed themselves as it floats northwards and eastwards in the Gulf Stream. This requires a concurrence with another natural phenomenon – in order to secure an acceptable year class of cod the spawning must be well timed in relation to the spring bloom of the zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus as it shall provide nutrition to the newly hatched cod juvenile.

Without doubt the most important nursery for the Northeast Arctic cod stock is the Barents Sea, much of which is in the Russian exclusive economic zone. The cod is a migratory stock. As a young cod it is attracted to the northern coast in search of capelin. This in turn provided the origins of the spring fishery in Finnmark. When the Northeast Arctic cod has reached sexual maturity it starts on its long migration from the Barents Sea to the Norwegian coast. The circle is complete and a new year class is born.

We have reason to believe that this fascinating natural drama has taken place more or less continually ever since the ice melted after the last Ice Age. Of course the size of the cod population has varied over time based on fluctuations in the spawning result and nutritional conditions in the sea, but the fundamental pattern has been stable. The technique of preserving the fish by drying it is in all likelihood also extremely old. There is normally a lot of wind that provides good drying conditions. It is not normally too cold, herby avoiding frost that damages the quality of the flesh. As a general rule it is not too hot either, which can spoil the fish and attract flies which come and lay their eggs on the fish.

Today we can be facing dramatic changes in Lofoten’s outstanding position in cod fishery and the production of stockfish of the most outstanding quality. If the scientific forecasts about fundamental changes of the global climate prove correct, this can be reflected in several ways. Changes in the sea temperature can lead to changes in the Arctic cod’s spawning grounds and weaken the actual seasonal fishery. Temperature changes can also weaken Lofoten’s status as one of the best places for production of stock fish of high quality. There are indications of such changes today, but it is uncertain whether these just represent natural variations within the long-term stable pattern or notice of more lasting change.

Stockfish for sale

The Lofoten seasonal cod fishery is our largest and oldest fishery, and it formed the basis of fish becoming Norway’s first export commodity of quantity and economic significance in the Middle Ages. This decisive change occurred around 1100 AD. A market for dried fish arose in England and on the continent, along the coast of the North Sea and Baltic Sea. This may be attributed to strong population growth and not least the growth of many towns and cities where sections of the population no longer produced their own food.

Craftsmen, traders, soldiers, clergymen, writers and servants of kings and distinguished men needed to supplement their food from outside sources. This coincided with the introduction of Christianity in Europe, and the religion stipulated stricter rules about what people could eat. During Lent and other periods of fasting the consumption of meat was not permitted, but the consumption of fish was fine. The fasting was more comprehensive in the Middle Ages than it is in the modern Catholic Church, and involved fasting in several periods that in total comprised roughly one-third of the year.

Stockfish from the north represented a perfect answer to the new demand for food. The cod retained all the nutrients, but was reduced to just one quarter of its weight. It had a long shelf life and did not require further conserving with expensive salt. Neither did it require packaging before being transported to markets in England and on the continent. Consequently, it became possible to exploit the rich fish resources in Lofoten commercially in a form of market economy. The fish was traded for grain and flour. This was extremely important for the coastal population as it concerned the establishment of a secure supply of the essential base ingredients in the Norwegian diet and, as mentioned, the natural conditions for growing grain on the coast in the north were unfavourable.

Right from the start the trade took place where the fishing and production occurred – in Lofoten. In time, a trading post for stockfish sprung up. In the saga we can read about Vágar, and through archaeological excavations over the past decade just west of today’s Kabelvåg it has been mapped that there was actually a small medieval town here, the first urban centre in the world north of the Arctic Circle and the first in Northern Norway.

But the stockfish also gave strong growth impulses for another young Norwegian city – Bergen. It was a long way from Lofoten to the European stockfish markets using the vessels of the day. Consequently, the need arose for a staple port, a trans-shipment port in the foreign trade, with stockfish out and grain and other goods into the country.  Bergen, which was established in 1070, experienced rapid growth and Norway’s largest city right up to the 1830s was. The city below the seven mountains was the unrivalled centre for Norwegian stockfish trade right up to the last century.

The stockfish was not only important for the fishermen and those directly involved in the stockfish trade. In many ways, we can say that the profits of the stockfish trade played a fundamental role in the formation of the Norwegian state and the development of the church in Norway in the High Middle Ages. During this period a full 80 % of the export value from Norway was derived from the stockfish trade.

It has been estimated that the volume of stockfish exports from Bergen at the start of the 14th century was 3000-4000 tonnes per year. If we put the amount at 4000 tonnes and that each cod in gutted form weighed 2.7 kg, we are talking about no less than six million stockfish, in order words a significant mass product. The good incomes from the trade of stockfish must also have been a contributing factor when the church as an institution could commence building of the gigantic Nidaros Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the Nordic region, and a host of other church buildings.

The production of stockfish involves gutting, heading and cleaning the fish before it is ready to be hung on the drying rack. The fish are tied together in pairs by the tail, or braced as it is called, and hung up to dry. For large fish and late in the season, it is common to split almost the whole fish and remove the spine. Such fish just hang together by the tail. This is called producing split cod.

Hanseatic League and jekt transport

After the Black Death, the devastating pandemic that struck Norway with such force in the 14th century, there were dramatic changes in trade involving fish. For the first time the prices rose sharply. The population decline led to a strong drop in demand for land. The farmers were tenant farmers and rented the land they cultivated, while the church, state and prominent men were the landowners. Consequently, land rentals dropped, as did the price of grain and other crops. However, meat and fish prices, on the other hand, remained reasonably high. The terms of trade between fish and grain changed on the basis of this in the fishermen’s favour; he received more grain for a certain quantity of fish than previously. This resulted in people moving to the coast close to the best fishing grounds. It became more important for people to ensure incomes from the fish, while the considerations for good conditions for farming were not as important as before. In time a series of fishing villages sprang up, with dense populations of specialist fishermen. We find such places, for instance, in North Møre in Trøndelag, in the north of Vesterålen at Bleik, Andenes and Langenes and further northwards on the island of Senja, in North Troms and not least in Finnmark, where there was a Norwegian population expansion on the outer coast.

Secondly, an upheaval in the organisation of the stockfish trade occurred. The German trade organisation, the Hanseatic League, gained increasingly stronger control over the foreign trade in Bergen. Vágar, which experienced its golden age in the 13th and 14th centuries, soon experienced a dramatic decline, and in time disappeared in the twilight of history. The natives of Nordland began transporting their stockfish to Bergen instead of trading it for grain at the traditional gatherings in the north.

This is how the jekt (a traditional boat with a high upright stem used in Northern Norway) transportation system started, and it lasted right up to the end of the 19th century. The system functioned as follows:  Lofoten and the seasonal fishery had just as central role as before. The Arctic cod still swam here in enormous shoals every winter.

Fishermen from all over Northern Norway and even more from further away came here to be part of the adventure and the hard work during the fishery. They hung their catch on drying racks here and returned home to participate in their home fishery and in other fisheries and in order to contribute in the spring farming. When summer came and the fish hanging on the racks in Lofoten were dry, the fishermen sailed back here to transport their stockfish to Bergen. But it was now the jekt, a transport vessel, that was used and not the traditional Nordland boat.

The jekt travelled from the various districts in the north to Lofoten and loaded the stockfish aboard. They then transported it to Bergen to barter and trade. Each was connected to their own merchant, and here they traded the fish for goods and provisions for next season, but one could also end up in a rather bottomless debt after a while. Being on a jekt for the first time must have been like an adventure, an encounter with the outside world. On average the trip took around two months. It could of course be a dangerous route and a lot was at risk, both values and human lives in an era where no one had heard about insurance schemes. Those who succeeded returned with grain and flour goods, cloth, gifts for those waiting at home, but certainly also impulses and ideas. The jekt transport and trading of stockfish was an exchange of goods as well as a giant exchange of cultures, which has been of enormous significance for the people on the coast for hundreds of years.

Italy is today the main market for Lofoten stockfish of the highest quality. The trading connections between Lofoten and Italy are extremely old, but knowledge about the origins remains uncertain. However, we know that the trade between Italy and Flanders (a region in the north-west of today’s Belgium) was important during the renaissance at the end of the Late Middle Ages and in the Early Modern Period in the 15th and 16th centuries. The transportation of goods between the two areas was by boat, and in all likelihood the Italian merchants had become aware of the Norwegian stockfish in Flanders, found that it was well suited as a provision on voyages by ship to and from the Mediterranean and that the trading and maritime cities of Venice and Genoa have function as a gateway for stockfish from the north to the Italian market.

Nonetheless the Italian nobleman and merchant Pietro Querini from Venice had a more direct connection with the stockfish production and natural conditions in Lofoten. He was shipwrecked on a voyage from the Mediterranean to Flanders in autumn 1431 and Querini and some of his crew had a miraculous survival. They reached land on the island of Røst in outer Lofoten just after New Year in 1432 after drifting in a lifeboat in the open sea for weeks. In the accounts of this incident and his stay on Røst, we get an outstanding eyewitness account about the fishery, stockfish production and the practices and customs of daily life in Lofoten in the Late Middle Ages.

Source: “Den norsk-arktiske torsken og verden” (The Northeast Arctic cod and the world), the history of the cod fishery by Pål Christensen. This book may be purchased at all coastal authority museums, member museums in the national network for fishery history and coastal heritage and member museums in the national museum network for ship transport. In Lofoten you will find the book at The Lofoten Museum, Lofotr Viking Museum and the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum.