The Lofoten Fishery
by Gro Røde
We wait for them, the fish and the fishermen, in January, every single
year. Irrespective of occupation or business, in Lofoten, everyone is
preoccupied with the winter fishery; with how things are going. This
male-dominated occupation is observed with Argus-eyed vigilance by
housewives, furniture salesmen, teachers and tax officers.
They all know that the greatest cod fishery in the world, forms the basis of
all human settlement in the Lofotens.
Thousand Year Tradition
From January to April the fishermen are always at their posts in Lofoten,
ready and waiting. In about 1120, King Øystein built "rorbu" cabins in
Lofoten, where the fishermen could live and work. This was almost certainly
because of the many visiting fishermen that came to the fishing villages
during the Winter Season. Consequently, even more came. In such a way, the
total catch increased, and the King gained greater income and more control
over the wealth that was landed. Today, the fishermen, and this "commercial
fishery", are thus integral parts of a thousand year old tradition. The
fishermen do as their forefathers did, they catch tasty cod, full of fatty
liver and nutritious roes.
The fish as a
commodity is the same, the drying method is the same, but apart from this
the methods used for fishing, production and sales have all changed.
Stone Age finds show that the people here harvested the seas using tackle
like stone sinkers and hooks made of horn and bone. Nets were also used, but
only in shallow waters. The deep sea haul was taken with hook and line –
handlines. This continued for thousands of years, until way into the Middle
Ages. In the history of the Lofoten Fishery, the tackle in use has been the
focus of much turbulence. Being innovative on the seas of Lofoten has been
no easy task. The fishermen were traditionally very sceptical to the use of
new types of gear, saying that "the old ones are good enough". But more
important was probably the fear of having to make new, substantial
investments in an uncertain trade. Most of them had enough debt to begin
Turbulence and Prohibition
We know that longlines were used in the Vestfjord in 1533, but it was not
until 1580 that they became commonplace. The handliners quickly became
frustrated, complaining that longlines ruined the fishing for them. There
were no regulations on fishing, and lawlessness reigned: no rules for when
the day’s fishing should begin, and no rules determining what tackle could
be used. No wonder people were in despair. They asked the King for help, and
were heard. In 1644, King Christian IV banned longlining. Gillnets were
introduced to cod fishing in about 1750, and there was no lack of protest at
that either. Consequently, nets were banned for a brief period of time. Only
handlines were to be used, but then there were new protests, and the ban had
to be lifted.
Indeed, neither making laws nor buying tackle were easy matters – you
never knew what would be prohibited next winter. Should the winter season
prove to be a bad one, then the new types of tackle were held to blame, and
there was a great deal of confrontation in the fishing villages between
handliners, longliners and gillnetters. Things went to and fro, bans were
imposed and the same bans were lifted. In the 1770’s, both gillnets and the
illegal longlines were in use. In 1786, both types of tackle were finally
made legal, but conditions in the fishing villages were still a cause of
great concern, with large numbers of strangers, few regulations, and a
disturbingly high consumption of liquor and luxury commodities.
The Lofoten Act –Improved Order at Sea
In 1816, the Lofoten Act – Lofotloven – was passed. This act regulated the
time when fishing could begin in the morning, and divided the seas off the
shore of each fishing village into permanent areas for longlining and
gillnetting. The landlords or publicans of each fishing village were made
inspectors, making sure that everyone conformed to the new regulations. So
now peace was finally supposed to reign in the fishing villages, since the
fishermen were obliged to stick to their own fishing village, rent "rorbu"
cabins there, and decide in advance what type of tackle they would be using.
There was, however, great dissatisfaction with these arrangements. The law
was too rigid, it was not adapted to the unpredictable ways of the fishery.
The fish did not distribute themselves evenly among the fishing villages,
sometimes they were here, sometimes there.
Being bound to one part of Lofoten where there were no fish was quite
intolerable when people in other areas were hauling in the catch.
Furthermore, the landlords, having attained considerable authority, had
become landowners – like the British squires – and acted like minor sheriffs
in each individual fishing village, running things as they pleased.
Dissatisfaction was rife, both among the fishermen, the general public, and
among the official class.
Free Waters – Free Fishing
In 1857 the strict regulations were finally lifted. An important figure in
the implementation of this was government official Ketil Motzfeldt. The
basic principles for fishing now became: free waters, free fishing, state
inspection. The landlords, or squires, were removed from their office as
inspectors, and the fishermen were given more influence and freedom – at
least on paper. In reality, many fishermen were still tied to their fishing
villages. The squires had lent them money to outfit their boats, and had
allowed them credit when times were hard. The squires knew that the
fishermen would be forced to turn to them, even though they offered poor
prices for their fish. Those who were in debt had simply no choice. The
freedom to set tackle wherever the fishermen pleased led once again to
unrest and disturbance. Nets and longlines were often set too close, and
Safety and Minimum Prices
With the advent of the motor boat, work at sea became both easier and safer.
It was easier to follow the fish and it was easier to go where the best
prices were paid. The year 1938 is very important in the history of the
Norwegian fisheries: it was then that the Raw Fish Act came into force,
ensuring the fishermen a fixed price for their fish. From now on, the fish
buyers could no longer determine the value of the catch, this was left
instead to the fishermen’s own organisation, the Raw Fish Sales Association.
The fishermen were secured a minimum price and could once again hold their
Up until the Second World War, fish caught in Lofoten was either sold to
the squire, or to buyer boats anchored up in the harbour. After the war, the
buyer boats disappeared, but even so, the squires were no longer the only
buyers – others had appeared on the scene. The 1950’s and 60’s were tough
times for the old, well-established squire-owned businesses; they went
bankrupt, one after the other. For the fishing village communities, this
transition meant uncertain times – but also opened up new opportunities.
The Seas of Lofoten Today
Today, the seas of Lofoten are divided up into longline, gillnet and Danish
seine areas during the winter fishery and it is the fishermen themselves who
determine the divisions. The boats must remain strictly in their own areas.
The handliners on the other hand, can fish wherever they please. Nets and
longlines catch the most fish, but the handliners dominate in numbers.
However, according to the fisheries inspectorate in Svolvær, the tendency is
clear: Danish seiners are increasing year by year. The Danish seiners use a
small trawl net, like a large sack, that is tightened around the fish. Many
fishermen criticise the Danish seine, saying that it is worse for the fish
resources than the purse seines that purged the seas in the 1950’s, before
they were banned. Unrest and animosity between the users of the various
types of fishing gear still occur, and the fishery inspectors of Lofoten
have to patrol the waters off Lofoten throughout the season, to make sure
that the borders between the different types of gear are observed.
Crisis and Optimism
Towards the end of the 1980’s, some local communities experienced a crisis
after the Lofoten fishery had provided poor yields for a number of
consecutive years. During the winter of 1995, however, things were once
again looking up – the number of fishermen taking part was on the increase
and the total catch was once again at an acceptable level. The fish kept to
the more distant banks, though, and those who made money were the larger
gillnetters and Danish seiners. The winter fishery was a disappointment for
the smaller handliners, both in volume and income.
The Lofoten Fishery is culture and craftsmanship based on strong,
long-standing and proud traditions. The Lofoten Fishery is competitiveness
coupled with team work. It is long working days and worn out workers. It is
hours spent at the most exhilarating, most dangerous and most beautiful
place of work imaginable. It is elation at a major haul and sorrow over
losses, purged seas and the fight for resources.