Lofoten Islands: My First Day on a Fishing Boat!

By Laurent Lefèvre
Photos by Nicolas Jérôme, Laurent Lefèvre

“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” Edgar Allan Poe’s quote has perhaps never been more true than in the Lofoten Islands. Considered the world’s most beautiful archipelago (see part 1), they are surrounded by the maelstrom, one of the world’s strongest tidal currents. This ominous whirlpool inspired the author of The Raven to write a short story, Descent into the Maelström.

Main actors of the world’s most important cod fisheries, the local fishermen have learned to tame the danger at the helm of their boat. For centuries, they have developed very strong sea imagery and maintained a way of life linked to the ocean, to its perils, and its resources.

The dock by the youth hostel Justad Rorbuer og Vandrerhjem, in Stamsund.

In the fishing village of Stamsund, the youth hostel Justad Rorbuer og Vandrerhjem is a typical example of a Rorbuer (red house constructed for fishermen) transformed as lodging for tourists. Built on the dock by the sea in the 1930s, it accommodated fishermen who came from all of Norway for the winter season. At the origin of all cod recipes, the skrei or Arctic cod fishery is in full swing from January to April. Once they reach adulthood, the cod returns from the icy Barents Sea to mate in the Lofoten’s waters where they were born. The cod have done this two-month journey of 2000 km for a millennia. However, sometimes, the cod doesn’t go back there.

Roar is at the helm of his boat. He goes out fishing around 10 times a year and more in winter.

My First Day on a Fishing Boat

On Tuesday the 9th of September, the owner of the hostel, Roar Justad, goes out fishing, taking with him four of his guests. Moored in front of his hostel, his motorboat leaves at 11:28 am. After half an hour at sea, the temperature has dropped. Inside the boat, the heat of a small wood burner warms the cabin. The boat is well-equipped with all the modern technology of marine navigation. At the helm, Roar is looking at two screens in front of him, while juggling his two mobile phones and lighting a cigarette with a lighter at regular intervals.

To his left, a Raymarine FishFinder detects the presence of fish indicated by blue points on the screen, sometimes it can blur or freeze. Pointing at the water, Roar explains: “When you spot their fins, you see where the fish are going.” At crucial moments, the instinct of the fisherman gets the upper hand over the technology.

Steering with a Joystick

To his right, the Automatic Identification System indicates our position and the coordinates of the other boats around. “Everybody can see me and I can see everybody!” On the screen, he spots a boat 2 miles away and checks its identity with one of his phones; the other is for the office. “It’s easy with so many instruments now, I’m steering with a joystick.”

As a consequence of the use of technology, the number of participants in the winter fishing season has decreased since 1945. Today only 3,000 to 4,000 fishermen remain and most of them live on board their boats equipped with modern and comfortable cabins. However, even today, the cod trade contributes to a major part of the local economy. With 90% of the fish being exported outside of the Archipelago.

Norway has by far the most important fishing fleet in the Barents and Norwegian seas with 3.000 active vessels compared to 215 for Russia, the second most important in the region. It is not surprising that their two-hundred Krone banknotes have a cod and small herrings swimming with its blue sea background on the backside. Imagine the one-hundred dollar bill with a dried cod head instead of a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. There is even a museum dedicated to the stockfish in Moskenes, the Lofoten Stockfish Museum.

As a member of the European Economic Area, Norway has declined to be a part of the European Union in two referendums (1972 and 1994), partly because the EU would have imposed its own fishing quotas. Forbidden within EU waters, hunting whales is still practiced in the Lofoten by around ten local boats. This tradition takes place in the fjords; 600 to 800 rorquals are killed every year. It is regulated by the Integrated Management Plan for the Marine Environment of the Barents Sea-Lofoten Area.

If We Were Pirates

At 11:57, our boat stops for the first time. Some blue points are observable on the FishFinder. On the deck, everybody got excited, but it was a false alarm, the cod have disappeared. “It depends on the tide!” explained Roar. “In winter, there are millions of fish in the sea, but too many nets, I have problems.” The boat goes on slowly toward the continent that is clearly visible despite being at more than 24 miles.

“I can see some buoys over there. There is a net,” pointed out Roar. Invisible to the untrained eyes, the net will stay there for 24 hours, but there is no sign of the fishing boat that has cast it. “It went back to Stamsund. If we were pirates, we could go over there and steal their fish!” laughed Roar. At 13:02, our boat slows down and stops, this is our fishing spot in the middle of the Norwegian Sea. On the deck, the excitement was palpable. “Drop the line!” shouted Roar pointing at a swarm of blue points on his screen. When the line is at the 20-meter-deep, an up-and-down movement enables it to pull up several cod on the different hooks of the line.

The Norwegian government fixes a quota every year, according to the fish stocks estimated by scientists. Each boat has its own quota to respect. “[In 2018], the limitation for my boat was 55,000 kg,” confirms* Holger Pedersen, a professional fisherman who supports sustainable fishing. Recreational fishermen like Roar have also a quota if they want to sell their catch to local restaurants for example. 

Whirlpools of the maelstrom of Saltstraumen, Nordland, Norway.

The Danger is Still Looming

At the sea, it can sometimes be misty. Roar was born on the Lofoten and has lived all his life there. He knows his islands by heart. A church on one of the islands can help him steer his boat without the instruments, which are “quite reliable”. In case of emergency, there is a man over-board button and every fisherman has to wear a surviving suit. “They have saved many lives,” sums up Roar. In the cold waters of the Norwegian Sea, a man will survive only two to three minutes without a survival suit, 24 hours with. The principal danger remains the maelstrom that all fishermen in the Lofoten have experienced.

Roar remembers clearly the five or six occasions he had to sail through it. One time, by day with a big boat full of fish heads. “It was running very hard this current. We had a lot of holes around in the sea, the current made many of them. I have sailed through a big hole many times, but not with this spring tide. I had to slow the speed, then the motor didn’t force and the boat could live a normal life.” The best way to escape the maelstrom is to avoid it by taking a longer route known by the locals, like Roar.

The football pitch of Henningsvær, surrounded by drying racks.

Drying Racks are Part of the Landscape

As large amounts of the catch are used in the production of the stockfish, the fresh cod is cleaned once unloaded from the boats and tied together in pairs around the tail, and hung on drying racks. From February to June, a dry climate and ideal temperature (between -4 and 0° c) do the rest of the work. Many locals have their own drying racks. They are part of the landscape and can be found everywhere, even at many out-of-the-ordinary spots; for example around the football pitch of Henningsvær.

A fishing boat in front of the village of Reine.

The Good Life

At 73 years old, Roar, who did mechanical engineering at a shipyard and is now retired, remembers dearly his best catch (a cod of 30 kg), the beauty of seaweed with special colors at low tide, the lily-white mountains of Reine covered with fresh snow and incredible Northern Lights on the sea. “We don’t see the sun itself in December, not before the 7th of January, but the clouds over the deck can be pink. The sun is under the horizon, we can see the light though and it’s not cold (between 5 plus and minus 5). We have a good life here. The quality of life.”

Thanks to Éric Babikian, guide at Terres d’aventure, for his advice and documentation.

* In a French documentary, by Robin Jean et Léo Dutoyer.

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