On “The sea that feeds us”, the theme for the 200-krone banknote

Based on a text by Årstein Svihus

The prospects for fishing, trapping and hunting brought the first settlers to the Norwegian coast around 11 000 years ago. In the beginning, marine mammals such as seal and walrus were the most important, but fishing gradually gained in importance. The evidence is that many of the oldest seasonal settlements are located at sites with good coastal fishing. When agriculture was introduced much later, the first farms were situated along the coast in close proximity to fishery resources. In this way arose the hardy combination livelihood of the fisherman-farmer. Fishing and agriculture were easily combined, since the fisheries are at their best during the dark season when the soil is resting, crops have long been harvested and the butter and cured meat have been brought indoors. The combination of fishing and farming shaped the lives of many a coastal inhabitant up until the present time.

While for a long time the catch nearly all went to meet the needs of the household, eventually fish became Norway's primary traded good. In the high Middle Ages, Norway had become a part of an extensive trading network that brought Norwegian stockfish (dried fish), cod liver oil and herring to a growing European urban population, at the same time as grain and other necessities went in the other direction. This became very important for the development of settlements along those sections of the coastline where natural conditions might not guarantee annual grain harvests. Households had more than one leg to stand on, and the combination of fishing and farming mitigated the impact of crop failures and poor catches. The stockfish trade turned Bergen into Norway's largest town and primary port for fish exports, and it became crucial for all settlements in rowing or sailing distance from the annual appearance of spawning cod in Lofoten and other places. One indication of the historical stability of these fisheries is the fact that many of the boat types used for fishing underwent only minor changes between the Middle Ages and modern times.

With cheaper salt and new markets, in the 1700s and 1800s, herring and salt cod assumed the role as dominant export products. The dramatic growth of the herring fisheries in the 1800s supported higher populations in the west and north. New settlements sprung up, and existing market villages and towns from Vest-Agder to Nordland were reinvigorated. During a brief part of the winter season, much of the adult population in coastal towns was engaged in fishing, fish processing and trade. Moreover, herring came to dominate the daily diet, from the outermost islands deep into the inland valleys.

By the end of the 1800s, fish processing became industrialised. Canneries now processed a growing share of the catch of small herring and brisling. Soon, other fish species were brined and tightly packed in tins. Stavanger became Norway's canning capital, but canneries large and small also sprouted up elsewhere along the coast.

As the 1900s wore on, fishing methods, processing techniques and markets became increasingly diverse. Catches increased dramatically, and fish products were exported worldwide, now in the form of stockfish, salt cod, pickled herring, tinned, frozen and fresh fish, fish meal and fish oil. The diversity of products was also manifested on Norwegian dinner tables, where traditional dishes increasingly made way for practical tinned fish and frozen fillets. The same developments resulted in a declining share of the catch consumed by the fisherman's own household or sold in the local market. The old ties between local fisherman and the market in town were severed, and the fjords near towns became a growing arena for angling and other recreational activities.

From the 1970s and into the new millennium, the seafood industry went from harvesting nature's surplus to creating an entire food chain from fish eggs to filets. The farming of fish, first trout and then primarily salmon, gave a boost to the coastal economy. The aquaculture industry was able to make use of technological developments in fishing, while benefiting from scientific advances in biology and feed. Farmed fish reached existing seafood markets, while new, almost insatiable markets in Asia were created. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, farmed fish passed wild-caught fish in terms of export value.

Advancing technology and global specialisation have had a profound impact on the number of fishermen, factory workers and processors. At the same time, the evolution of the seafood industry now depends on the efforts of more areas of expertise than traditional ones. New and creative use of knowledge is necessary for the industry to grow within the constraints set by nature without irreparably harming the environment. It is currently hoped that this problem will be solved by utilising new species, employing algae and phytoplankton in the production of food and fish feed and by making improvements in cages and production facilities.

 

Published 27 July 2017 13:32