Norway's 'Silver Treasure': Herring Feeds the Norwegian Soul

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Norway's 'Silver Treasure': Herring Feeds the Norwegian Soul

Henkin, Stephen, The World and I

A cool blanket of fog roils in as Per Bo steers his boat out into the Norwegian Sea. "I like fishing ... boating," declares the stocky, grayhaired captain. "I'm free to be my own boss."

Bo, 60, has thirty years of experience on the North Atlantic. Working alone, he sometimes goes twenty miles off Norway's coast to net herring. "The worst part is bad weather and engine problems," he comments. "It can be like a roller coaster on the ocean: waves coming over the side of the ship, rocking us back and forth. And once I had a fuel-filter problem, but that [life-threatening crisis] will never happen again--I carry spares."

He keeps his bright orange craft Havbris (Sea Breeze) among the two hundred small fishing boats in the crowded harbor at Alesund and lives in nearby Hafrsfjord. Norwegian-built, his 24-foot-long boat is relatively short compared with many others in the herring fleet. "We have a saying," he comments. "Our boats are our best fishes."

Bo's quest is assisted by high-tech devices, now considered standard, that are a far cry from the sextant and compass once relied upon. "I have an Echologue--to determine how many fathoms deep the water is--made in Japan," he explains with pride. "I also have an Italian-made satellite navigator's chart so I can mark the latitude and longitude of the best fishing spots. To tell where the other ships are in fog, I have radar, also made in Japan. And I have automatic steering--made in Norway."

The herring are caught from 30 to 600 feet down. Bo uses a 500-meter-long net that closes to 50 meters across. He gestures to demonstrate how it all works. "Seagulls have a feast when we fish," he grins.

At the end of the day, as he returns to harbor to sell his catch, Bo gets on the cell phone, trying to determine which of the twenty or so Alesund-based companies are offering the best prices. "Fifty percent of Norwegians regularly eat herring," he comments.

But independent herring fishermen are something of a vanishing breed. Approximately six hundred small coastal boats--each between twenty and fifty feet long and crewed by one to four--operate out of Alesund and the surrounding county of More og Romsdal. In terms of value and volume of catch, this is Norway's premier fishing region. But it is the hundred or so bigger, oceangoing, deepwater boats--with crews of four to eleven hands--that Bo describes as the real competition. These so-called floating factories not only catch much more herring, he laments, but have "TV, saunas, pool tables, and Internet over satellites." Their presence and impact make small coastal boats less financially viable.

The herring reigns supreme

Fishing has long been the very basis of life and culture along Norway's rocky western coast, and it remains Norway's second most important export industry (behind North Sea oil, another offshore pursuit). Alesund, for example, is the world's top exporter of klippfiske (dried cod). But of all Norway's ocean catches--including the voracious cod and the noble salmon--the humble herring (Clupeus harengus) has played the biggest historic role. A single herring is said to contain a day's protein requirement.

Although cod has supplanted it as the most important harvest in terms of size or cash value, Norwegians maintain a real fondness for the herring. Indeed, they respectfully refer to it as the "silver treasure of the ocean," due to a shoal's silvery iridescent color. The herring's historical importance can be measured by the fact that herring bones have been discovered throughout Scandinavia in mounds dating from Neolithic times.

The size of the herring stock, like other stocks, fluctuates in step with nature's cycles. In the early fifties, herring were abundant, and coastal fisheries enjoyed a heyday. Overfishing and low rates of renewal led to the herring stock's being severely depleted toward the end of the decade. "In 1960 there were almost no herring left," explains Christina Einarsen, manager of Alesund's new Atlantic Sea Park, Scandinavia's largest aquarium. …

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