Fishing in Arctic Waters
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN NORWAY
SHRILL cries of seagulls and the monotonous humming of diesel engines meet the ear. The nostrils encounter scents of salt water and seaweed, as well as vapors of fresh and decaying fish.
Where are we? At Svolvær, a fishing village far north of the Arctic Circle. This is the site of one of the world’s largest cod fisheries.
Approaching the harbor are fishing cutters, their undersides extending deep into the water due to heavy cargoes of fish. The activity on shore is hectic; everyone is scrambling to his place, ready to unload and process today’s catch.
When I noticed Havternen, or “The Ocean Tern,” getting fastened to a quay, I seized the opportunity to speak with the skipper. He is a native of Lofoten, a large group of islands off northern Norway.
“The Lofoten fisheries have really changed,” he explains, “even if it is still a giant operation. During my youth, the Lofoten fishing season would involve some 32,000 men at work. Now it’s barely a tenth of that number.”
Fishing for “Skrei”
I learned that large fleets of fishing cutters hunt for skrei. These are six- to fifteen-year-old cod that come from the Barents Sea, northeast of Norway, to spawn. They seek out a location where warm, salty Atlantic water from the Gulf Stream mixes with cooler, less salty Arctic water. The resultant temperature and salinity lure shoals of cod to this location at the beginning of January each year. Along with the cod come fishing vessels from all over Norway.
I was curious as to the type of equipment used to haul in huge catches of fish. “A hundred years ago,” says the skipper, “we used boats with sails and oars, similar to the ancient Viking ships. Today we use engine-driven cutters between twenty and seventy feet (6 and 21 meters) long. These are furnished with advanced technical equipment.
“Most vessels use nets bound together in large links, often 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) long. These nets do not stand vertically in the water, but bulge out like a sail filled with wind, making it easier to entangle fish in the meshes. Others prefer the purse seine, a baglike net put out while the vessel is in motion and then hauled in by a winch when the boat lies still. Smaller boats may use lines with thousands of baited hooks. Or they may fish with what we call juksa, a single line with several fishhooks. When a fisherman jerks this line rhythmically, fish go after it.”
It seemed to me that so many fishing vessels at work with different types of equipment would result in much confusion. When I asked the captain about this, he replied:
“No, the fishing operations are subject to detailed regulations. The ocean itself is divided into fields, and vessels with the same kind of catching equipment must keep within the same fields. Patrol boats see to the enforcement of this law.”
Besides cod, a fish that constitutes an attractive catch for fishermen of many nations is herring. The most important of Norwegian fishing activities has been for herring. Our skipper comments: “And they are even more exciting than the cod fisheries because herring are more of a gamble.
“The fishing efforts begin when herring move toward the Norwegian coast to spawn. We remain in harbor, waiting. When the radio flashes a message that herring is on the way, we leave port. As a herring measures only about twenty-eight to thirty-three centimeters [11 to 13 inches] in length, we generally use a purse seine with a fine mesh. On board everyone is tense, excited. The radio is on, tuned to a special ‘Fisheries Wave,’ and we all listen eagerly for reports of catches made.
“On the bridge of our boat alert eyes scan the sea. When sea gulls and terns are seen diving into the sea and coming up with herring in their beaks, we know that fish are there. Helpful too is an ‘echo sounder.’ This instrument sends out sound waves under water and records their echoes. If the sound waves bounce off a shoal of herring, we ‘see’ it on our registering screens.
“When this happens, we notify our seine master. He is the one who decides exactly when to throw the seine. Before doing this, he jumps into a small boat with another member of the crew and gets a close look at the herring shoal. Then comes the order: ‘Let go the seine!’ With a shrill whistle, the cutter circles the shoal at full speed, at the same time letting out the net. When the circle is closed, the seine becomes a purse. But the question is: ‘Did we get the shoal, or did it get away?’
“As the seine is being winched in slowly, carefully, we watch. When successful, the purse seems to have no water remaining in it; just glittering, silvery herring. A single throw of the seine may net us 300 to 400 tons of herring.”
When the Catch Is Hauled Ashore
I watched interestedly as barrels of fish were hoisted ashore. The fish were poured into a large basin, around which stood men with sharp knives. I observed one of them grab a fish. A cut opened the abdomen. Three quick movements of the hand disposed of the bowels. One or two more cuts and the head was off. Within seconds hard roe, liver and intestines ended up in three separate barrels, while the head went into a pile on the ground. Then it was on to the next fish with the same quickness and expertise.
After weighing and rinsing, some of this processed fish is put in large wooden boxes, cooled with ice and sent for immediate consumption all over the country. Another part of the catch is salted, dried and exported as klip fish. The largest part of the catch (around 50 percent), however, becomes “stock fish.”
This gets its name from being hung up on special stocks to dry in the open air. It remains on the stocks until summer. By then it weighs just a fraction as much as fresh fish. Stock fish has a high food value and does not easily decay. If a disaster suddenly strikes in an area, this type of fish comes in handy as an emergency food.
“Almost every part of the fish is utilized in some way,” our friend the skipper says. “For instance, children may earn good money cutting out the tongues from the fish heads. Many view fried cod tongues as a real delicacy for dinner as well as for sandwiches. The remains of the heads and other remnants go to fish-meal plants. The hard roe is frozen, canned or made into caviar. The liver is steamed into cod-liver oil, rich in vitamins A and D.”
Are We Robbing the Sea?
Our skipper has one big worry these days: “We are overtaxing the resources of the ocean. There is grave danger of total extermination for several types of fish.
“Take, as an example, fishing for herring. In the 1950’s oceanographers estimated the stock of winter herring at somewhere between fourteen and eighteen million tons. Today it is almost exterminated, and winter-herring fisheries are totally prohibited. Some voice the opinion that the only way to save winter herring is to prohibit fishing for them altogether. And the cod stock in the Barents Sea, the basis for Lofoten fishing activities, is in danger too. Though some refer to present-day catches as ‘good,’ oceanographers have termed the stock ‘alarmingly low.’”
I asked about the possibility of different nations coming to some agreement on common quotas so as to preserve stocks of fish. “That seems difficult to achieve,” said the skipper. “One problem is the reaching of agreement on how much each shall be allowed to catch. Even if they agreed on that, the quotas would be too high. Everyone is greedy. A notable example is what happened with whaling in Antarctica. Some decades ago tens of thousands of whales were caught down there each year. Today the whale is almost extinct in that area. And all that despite numerous conferences, lots of agreements and dozens of quotas! They just talked.
“Economic considerations further complicate matters. Fishing vessels with their equipment are costly. Such investments must yield interest. When stocks of fish diminish, bigger efforts are made to catch them. Moreover, other nations are expanding their fishing fleets at an explosive rate. They, too, want to share the riches off our Norwegian coast. You can see that setting limits on catches is not easy.”
Fishing in Arctic waters not only benefits mankind but is a vigorous and exciting activity. Depleted fish supplies do not stem from any inability of ocean life to reproduce sufficiently. The cause of this problem is the same as that resulting in so many others that afflict mankind—human greed.