Sarah Menzies worked in the Lofoten islands this past summer and is producing a 3-video series on the threatened cod fisheries located there.
The Lofoten Islands are referred to as the ‘magical islands,’ and as I boarded the ferry to make the 3-hour crossing from Bodo to Svolvaer through the Vestfjorden fjord I immediately realized why. Vestfjorden. Even the Norwegian names have a magical ring to them.
I had come to work on a number of film projects, the primary one being a 3-part video series about the threat of offshore drilling in the pristine region. The series will be released this spring. Lofoten is 200km in length, and is the home of the world’s primary cod fishery. To put it in perspective, it is to cod what Alaska is to king salmon.
Traveling and working around the region, I got some rare insight into the industry and its people.
All photos by Sarah Menzies unless otherwise noted in captions.
After 30+ hours of travel,
I got that special burst of energy that only comes when you land in a brand new place. Crossing Vestfjorden by ferry made a mockery of photos I had seen prior to getting here. Mountains jumped out of the sea with nothing else in sight for miles. Every once in a while, we would come around a corner to find a remote fishing village tucked in a small cove protected by jetties, mountains, and rocks.
It truly is remote.
Getting to the top of this peak meant creating our own trail up a face of dense knee-deep shrubbery. I enjoyed getting up high because I could look at the watershed and island chain from above.
Hidden in this photo
are 4 different islands with pristine waterways passing through them. This particular passage connects the Norwegian Sea with Vestfjorden. Cod are born in these waters, but migrate up to the Barren Sea shortly after birth. When they are about 5 or 6 years old, the make their way down from the Arctic, returning to Lofoten.
The returning fish
is what makes Lofoten the booming cod fishery that it has been for centuries. Driving from town to town, it’s impossible not to notice the influence fishing has in the region.
Almost every coastal village
has a loading and processing dock where boats will drop off their daily catch. After seeing many of the world’s fisheries get fished out, Lofoten holds tight regulations to ensure cod populations will be strong and sustainable for generations to come.
Each fishing community
has distinct cabins or huts along the waterfront called rorbuer or rorbu, which traditionally housed fishermen during the fishing season. This sign marks the area in the town of Henningsvaer where the men both lived and processed their catch. Rorbuer cabins date back as early as the 1100s, meaning the Lofoten fishery has been of considerable importance for many centuries.
marked a boom in the fishery’s history. At that time over 2,500 rorbu cabins were registered in Lofoten, and often 2-3 men had to share a single bed, sleeping head to foot. The cabins are still used during the fishing season, but most of them are rented out as accommodation for folks visiting Lofoten.
I was based in Henningsvaer,
a prominent Lofoten fishing village. Each small fishing town can harbor dozens of boats that go out daily during the high season. There are about 1,500 boats in Lofoten dedicated to cod fishing.
The season starts in February
and usually ends in May. As I said, there are tight regulations that protect the populations of the fishery. Each boat can bring in up to 1,000 kilograms per day. They are not permitted to trawl or use nets, so the 1,000 kilos of cod are being caught by a single hook and dropped off at these processing docks.
Once the fish
are brought to the docks, the heads are cut off from the bodies and are dried and processed separately. As the fish come in, kids walk the docks collecting the fish heads from the boats. They then cut out the tongues to sell to restaurants, local markets, and individuals. Not only do kids make make money from selling the tongues, they also learn about the tradition of the industry. Cod tongues are a delicacy in the area, and when I first saw them on a menu I knew I had to give the dish a try. They were a bit chewy and had the consistency of rubber, but I must admit, they tasted pretty damn good.
Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen
Once the tongues
are cut out, the heads are bundled up and strung on lines and hung from the drying racks along with the bodies. The racks begin filling up once the temperature is constantly above the point of freezing, which tends to be early March. The structures range in shape and size, but can be found on almost any level ground along the coastline.
The heads are the last
to be collected, and they are usually exported to parts of Africa, I was told, where they’ll be used to make soup stock. They tend to be the least desired part of the fish.
The bodies of the dried cod
are collected by early June, the heads in late June. At this point, they're so dry that as the workers tossed them into the bins, the sound they made could be mistaken for bones, despite the fact that there is still dried meat inside each carcass.
The cod fishery closes
in late spring, but there are still cod to be caught in the surrounding waters. We caught this one outside of Henningsvaer, and my friend John said, “We can’t keep this one. It’s a winter fish and it just doesn’t seem fair.” I think he was right. If this guy made it through the peak of the fishing season, he should keep on swimming. Besides, we were after mackerel anyhow.
is a huge controversy throughout Norway. It's akin to hunting elk or deer, the locals told me. They said that the species they’re pulling in is in great abundance; therefore, if they continue to regulate it, there’s nothing wrong with it, right? Still, something didn’t feel right about it to me. And you can feel the dilemma here -- people are either strongly for it, or just as strongly against it. I learned early on in my stay to not bring it up, as a heated argument would inevitably unfold amongst the company I was with.
"how do you like your whale cooked?" asked my new friend Odd Arne as he threw a few steaks on the grill. Alas, I was confronted with a decision. I was surrounded with an assortment of strangers and friends, and I needed to make my mind up on the matter in that single moment.
Do as the Norwegians do, right?
I don’t think I’ll ever eat it again, but the deep reddish purple of the meat is a color I’ll never forget.
Whether it’s whale meat,
cod, or produce grown locally on the surrounding agricultural land, food plays a big role in the tradition of the Lofoten community. It’s what gets people out of their houses in the dark winter months to join together for a meal. And it’s the centerpiece of summertime gatherings -- whether at 3pm or 3am -- that endless sun creates an opportunity to commune and celebrate the beauty and magic of the Lofoten Islands.