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Iceland from fishing to tourism

The history of fishing in Iceland has a common trajectory experienced by many other places in the world, including in Canada. Certainly the decline of the cod fishery in Newfoundland has its equivalent in Iceland, with similar results, but different responses.

Like many other fishing nations, the decline of the cod and herring fisheries between 1930 and the 1980s led the Icelandic government to gradually increase the limit of foreign fishing within coastal waters, with fishing limits beginning at 4 miles, and gradually expanding to a 200 mile limit. These measures led to conflicts with European countries, which had been fishing within these limits. A second management measure imposed by the Icelandic government was a quota system for every fish stock. These quotas can be sold or rented, but for the most part the largest fishing companies now control most of the quotas. While this may have been good for Iceland’s exporting of fish products, it has not helped the small coastal communities who have been dependent on more local fishing companies for their economic security. This had led to internal political battles in Iceland. 

The town of Hvammstangi has developed the seal centre to encourage a non-consumptive approach to seals and as a way to bring in tourists to its community. The centre is not without controversy among community members.  Another northern community, Husavik, had been on our itinerary. We ran out of time to visit, but this community now has a thriving tourism sector focused on whale watching tours in Icelandic wooden boats. 
At our final stop we visited the herring museum in Siglufjorder, located on the northern tip of one of the northern peninsulas. A beautiful small community surrounded by old volcanic mountains, it has declined from a high of 13,000 people during the hey-day of the herring fishery, to only about 1300 people today.  The museum presents various aspects of herring and the fishery. The main export was salted herring, but also included fishmeal and oil. Over 400 fishing boats were once based in  Siglufjorder. As our guide Anita in the herring museum noted, everyone kept fishing, because “nobody said stop”. Then everything collapsed and because all of the local jobs disappeared, people moved away.

At Siglufjorder we bade farewell to Ari Trausti, the Icelandic renaissance man, who had been our guide and expert during our stay in Iceland. In his parting comments to the students, Ari exhorted the students to “always be critical” and focus on more than one side of an issue, and if the become a scientist or a politician, to always “inform the public” about what they know.