On cod and herring

Based on a text by Årstein Svihus

For Norwegians, no other species of fish are as acclaimed and shrouded in myth as cod and herring. This is clearly evident in literature, including the works of Snorre, Petter Dass, Alexander Kielland, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jonas Lie, Knut Hamsun and Johan Boyer. The historical significance of cod and herring is also clear from other sources. Visitors to Bergen are quickly introduced to dried fish in the wharfs or in tourist brochures. In certain fishing regions, king cods (mutant cod) can still be seen suspended from church ceilings. Homage is paid to herring by depictions on municipal coats of arms and sculptures of girls gutting herring, fishermen and children with gutting knives. In the Norwegian language the most important herring and cod stocks are considered to be distinctly Norwegian and are referred to as "Norwegian spring-spawning herring" and "Arcto-Norwegian cod".

Nor is this surprising, because no other creatures have had as profound an influence on Norwegian society and culture as herring and cod – cod being "giant among giants" and foundation for social development and economic growth along the coast.

The word for cod in Norwegian, "torsk", also partly illustrates the cultural history of cod. The word "torsk" is assumed to originate from "tørket fisk" (dried fish). "Skrei" (spawning cod) was named descriptively because it migrates ¬– as in Norwegian "skrider frem" (advances). Both appellations describe fundamentals of cod biology and significance to Norwegian history: It migrates and is then fished and dried.

The yearly and relatively dependable inshore migration of spawning cod served as the basis for large-scale fishing in many locations along the coast all the way north to Finnmark. In this regard, Lofoten occupies a unique position. It is in the largest spawning area, with a climate is favourable for drying fish from the time they are hung in late winter, until summer brings flies and maggots. Drying was inexpensive and, when dried, the fish required neither crates nor other packing materials. In earlier times they could be loaded straight onto boats headed for Bergen, and then be shipped from there out to the rest of the world. The seasonal cod fishing in Lofoten attracted fishermen from surrounding areas within the range of boats with oar and sail. Dried cod was also produced in other places where there was a stable inshore migration of spawning cod or good coastal cod fishing, as in northwestern Norway. In these locations the climate was not as favourable for simply drying cod. The preferred method of processing dried cod in these places involved salting.

Herring were more unpredictable than cod. The fjords were sometimes packed full of herring in one place, and other times the herring headed towards shore somewhere completely different. As with the cod, however, herring were readily available when they came to the coast to gather in coastal lagoons and narrow fjords. Nor was it uncommon for herring to be caught regularly in nets in the same location decade after decade, after which they would suddenly disappear. In the mid-1500s, herring gave rise to a "gold rush" along the coast of Bohuslän, Norwegian territory at the time. There too, the bounty came to a sudden end, similar to the collapse of the herring fishery in the Oslo fjord in the same century. In the war and crisis year of 1808, herring appeared in the waters of western Norway as a godsend, which marked the beginning of a sixty-year herring boom. The herring first arrived in southwestern Norway, but moved gradually northwards. Owing to the sudden voluminous appearance of the herring, whole communities of fishermen, fish processors and merchants had to set out quickly to fish for herring with seine or trawling nets. At the same time, fish processors, equipped with salt and barrels, had to stand at the ready when the catch was brought ashore. Fishing for herring took place in the winter months, from January or February until early spring. Even though the work was dark, cold and treacherous, fishing for herring was viewed as an opportunity not to be missed. It is estimated that in the 1860s, just as many persons were involved in herring fishing and processing as there were industrial workers in all of Norway. Later, herring fishing reached new heights. In the 1950s, entire communities were again involved in the herring fishery. The excitement and the hunt for herring were now broadcast over the radio, in that way becoming the common property of the whole nation.

Herring and cod have shaped the communities they impacted. They have also inspired wonder and a host of explanations of life's many facets, such as in periods when the cod failed to appear. Examples of this can be found in many of the poet Petter Dass's dark portrayals of the crisis years of the 1600s.

Since the latter part of the 1800s, the secrets of both cod and herring were gradually uncovered by the emerging marine sciences. An answer was sought to the question of why catches varied so much. Did catches decline because there were fewer fish, or had the fish simply moved somewhere else? What significance did ocean currents and temperature have? From tentative beginnings in the 1860s, scientists tried to answer these and many other questions. Systematic analyses of fish eggs, migratory patterns and age provided more and more answers.

The purpose of this research was to understand nature in order to make better use of it. This became acutely apparent after the Second World War, when a problematic mix arose of science, fish searching technologies and increased catch capacity. It is true that some scientists sounded the alarm about this development, and as far as the cod was concerned, in the same period important discoveries were made regarding the conditions for sustainable fishing. But for the herring, the evolution of knowledge did not keep pace with developments in harvesting technology. The result was dramatic overfishing of Norwegian spring-spawning herring. Stocks were on the verge of extinction before the brakes were put on. It would take around 40 years for stocks to recover. This hard lesson led to a general change in awareness. It is commonly said that scientists went from being hunting dogs for the fishermen to becoming watchdogs for the fish. The recognition that marine resources have natural limits also spread to the fishermen and the rest of society. Those fishing for herring, cod and many other species have had to comply with limits on fishing gear and a strict quota system. Today, much is known about the lifecycle of both herring and cod. This knowledge is crucial for today's fisheries management, the goal of which is harvesting within nature's limits.

Herring and cod are no longer equally prominent in Norwegian society, as fewer are engaged in fishing or processing on land. Yet fishing continues to create value that, properly managed, represents a virtually perpetual resource. Cod also remains a favourite fish for many Norwegians, while herring is celebrated at countless herring buffets throughout Norway. Moreover, Norwegian-caught herring and cod are a substantial contribution to the world's larder. In this way, herring and cod are ambassadors of both Norwegian cultural history and modern international fisheries management.


Published 27 July 2017 10:26