In the small town of Djupavik nestled in the Westfjords of Iceland, an old herring oil factory has been turned into a time capsule for Iceland’s fishing industry. Inside, giant rusted machinery and algae-covered pressure gauges are precursors that helped build the fisheries in this country into some of the most efficient and modernized in the world.
Fish are a keystone of Iceland’s economy, culture, and history. In the early 20th century, technological advancement made fishing for herring more efficient than ever before, which turned small, remote fishing villages across the Icelandic coast into bustling hubs of industry. This frenzy was short lived, though, as years of overfishing contributed to a crash in the herring population and many of these towns were left to rust.
The Djupavik herring factory was built in 1935, back when all supplies were brought into town by boat. In the heart of the building is a boiler that was used to create steam to cook the fish before it was processed into oil. According to Magnus Pertursson, whose family bought the factory in 1984 and converted it into a museum and art exhibit, it took the workers two weeks to move this 60-ton piece of machinery into the factory. “In those generations, there were no problems, just solutions. They always found solutions,” Pertursson said.
When the herring disappeared in the late 1960s, so did many villages like Djupavik. Iceland’s GDP per capita plummeted by 25%, and it needed a solution to better manage the fish population. In 1987, Iceland instituted a temporary fishing quota that limited the yearly catch for fisherman countrywide, which the government made permanent three years later. While the quota system has helped to maintain a healthy population of fish, it remains a contentious subject in Icelandic politics. Quotas can be bought and sold, and now the industry is mostly consolidated to the 25 largest operators in the country.
While the quotas have forced many other families out of the industry, the decrease in total allowable catch spurred the need to do more with less. “A lot of the fishing companies as they were before the quota system were not sustainable,” Olafsson said. Now that there were limits in place, “it required them to make more valuables from the same amount of fish or less fish than they did earlier. That led to a lot of progress in the industry.”
In Reykjavik’s Old Harbour, the Iceland Ocean Cluster is focused on continuing this progress. The long turquoise building situated on the dock houses more than 70 companies that operate across every part of the supply chain in a collaborative space, many of which are working toward creating a more sustainable fishing industry.
According to Thor Sigfusson, Ph.D., the founder of the cluster, he wanted to create an environment that connects businesses and builds a knowledge base to collaboratively work toward more sustainable fishing practices.
A main goal of the Ocean Cluster is to reduce waste from the fishing industry. A study conducted by the cluster showed that half of raw material from cod caught in Europe and North America becomes waste during the production process. In Iceland however, ways to utilize byproducts like fish skin, oil, and even blood are continuously being developed. These efforts have enabled the country to increase the utilization of cod and other white fish to 80%.
At Hefring Marine, a startup headquartered in the cluster, CEO Karl Birgir Bjornsson is developing A.I. to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions of fishing vessels. The onboard technology reads tides and currents on the open water to optimize routes that use the least amount of fuel.
Down the hall at Optitog, another cluster member, researchers are developing new technology that uses light, as opposed to bottom trawling nets that scrape and damage the ocean floor, to “herd” prawns into a net. According to the company, this technology has shown to lower fuel consumption and eliminate bycatch, or unwanted marine life in their nets. In turn, they project an increase in profit while reducing negative environmental impact.
For many fishermen, these benefits go hand-in-hand. They must be able to maintain profitability, while also protecting the environment that sustains their business. Climate change continues to affect the oceans, and the fishing industry is a major contributor. Studies have shown that bottom trawling creates as much carbon dioxide annually as the aviation industry. And overfishing is a global issue, with one third of the world's fish stocks estimated to be over exploited, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.