Evolution in Icelandic fishing industry marks progress toward sustainable fisheries Story and photos by Tyler Hickman

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.

Factory workers in Djupavik, Iceland intentionally ran a vessel aground to act as temporary sleeping quarters. The boat still sits onshore today as an artifact in a museum dedicated to the village's old herring oil factory.

Today, the fishing industry accounts for 40% of total exports for the country, second only to aluminum. Cod is now the most integral fish species for Iceland. In order to prevent overfishing, Iceland instituted a quota system that has helped restore and maintain fish populations, though herring has never returned to its economic prowess. But this policy may not be enough as climate change presents new challenges that threaten the fishing industry.

Ocean temperatures are rising, and the acidification may be pushing fish further away from historical fishing grounds. Iceland has observed a noticeable decrease in capelin and mackerel populations during colder months, which resulted in a seasonal closure of these fisheries in the winter of 2018. As a result, Iceland must continue its tradition of innovation that helped build their fishing industry to find solutions for these modern problems.

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.

Magnus Petursson is a tour guide and historian for his family's museum in Djupavik, Iceland.
“In those generations, there were no problems, just solutions, they always found solutions.”

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.

For some, this has meant abandoning commercial fishing altogether. For others, it’s been an opportunity to build a more sustainable industry.

Four miles off the southwestern coast of Iceland on the island of Heimaey, the pungent smell of fish oil wafts through a harbor filled with herring and capelin vessels. Fish is still king on this island of about 4,000 people. For the family of local resident Sindri Olafsson, fishing has been the way of life for generations.

A fishing net rolled on a winch in the Harbor of Heimaey, Iceland. Nets like these are commonly used to catch pelagic fish species, or mid-ocean level fish, like herring and mackerel.

After decades of owning and operating his own boat, Olafsson’s grandfather sold his vessel in 1987 to captain for a larger fishing company. He explains that his family has never struggled financially, and that under the quota system, boat captains “today, and for the last 30 years, are among the highest paying jobs on the island.”

Olafsson’s father and brother currently fish for Isfelag, the same company that’s processing fish oil in the harbor.

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.

Sigfusson works in his office overlooking Old Harbour in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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%.

Top: "The Incredible Fish Value Machine" inside the Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik, Iceland shows how to maximize value from fish. Bottom Left: Shelves of products made from fish oil, collagen, and skin in Sigfusson's office at the Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik. Bottom Right: Samples of fish leather are on display in the hallway at the Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik, Iceland, which can be used to make textiles and is being developed for use as skin grafts.

For Sigfusson, climate change is the most obvious threat to the fishing industry. “We might see a completely different set of fish species, if any, in this environment,” he said. “This is a huge risk to islands like ours, and the whole Arctic Circle as well.”

What is often overlooked, however, is the way fishing itself impacts the environment. Sigfusson said new technology presents many opportunities, “to make things better for so many regions, [and] for the whole natural environment.”

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.

A mock interface for Hefring Marine's onboard technology displays optimal speed and route for vessels to minimize fuel consumption on their voyage.

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.

Left: A forklift loads cod and redfish onto a truck to be delivered to a shipping vessel that will bring Icelandic fish all over the world. The bottom floor of the Ocean Cluster is an open fish market where Iceland's catch is packaged and prepared for export. Right: In a food court featuring local restaurateurs at the Cluster, visitors like Ingrida and her son Ugnius can observe the fish being packaged and shipped through windows while sampling Icelandic cuisine.

Sigfusson acknowledges that fishing on a global scale is still not sustainable. “[Iceland] is probably the world leader, but we have a ways to go and it's really important for us not to become comfortable with the current situation.”

Despite a continued need to improve, in many ways, Iceland has become a model of progress in sustainable fishing for the rest of the world. Sigfusson has built a network of Ocean Clusters across the Northern hemisphere, and in July, U.S. senators from Hawaii, Alaska, Minnesota, and Colorado visited the cluster to see progress in the industry.

“We are a pretty good example of a small island with how we can take… this industry to a completely different level than in the past,” Sigfusson said. Sharing this knowledge and globally scaling the solutions Iceland is developing is the next step toward a more sustainable future for fishing.

A life buoy from Anna Borg, a historical Icelandic cargo ship that often transported saltfish, hangs in the hallway of the Ocean Cluster as a reminder of the country's rich fishing history.