Atlantic Klondike: The Icelandic Herring Saga

Iceland, Herring Era, Herring Girls
The Herring Girls hard at work in Siglufjörður Photo: National Museum of Iceland

From Struggle to Wealth
Iceland is not the easiest place to live in the world. Long (and when we say long, we mean very long) winters, short (very short) summers and an equally short growing season. This meant that for many years life was struggle, requiring near round-the-clock work and careful planning to make it from year-to-year, striving for plenty in the face of want.

The Icelander’s ability to catch fish played an enormous part in that process; in a country where the land gives very little, the people turned to the water, which gives plentifully. This has been the basis of the survival of the Icelandic people through what we call the “settlement” period, and as we shall see a tremendous source of wealth in later times.

All hands on deck! Photo: National Museum of Iceland

Fishing Goes Industrial
For much of Icelandic history, fishing has for a long time been a small-scale affair. Small row boats with a few men would row over treacherous seas with small nets, many times risking their lives for the catch.

The struggle went on until about the turn of the 20th century, then industrial technology was introduced into the fishing industry, allowing for considerable economies of scale.

Herring is one of this century’s principal shapers of Icelanders’ destinies. Without Herring it is questionable whether the modern society that now exists in Iceland could ever have developed.
Icelandic Historical Atlas, Vol.3, p.40

How was Herring used? In many ways. Salted Herring (much like salted cod) was shipped all over Europe, and Herring oil also proved very useful in the cosmetics industry where it was used for soap, which was a relatively new invention at the time, where the utilisation of steam power on an industrial scale was requiring ever-larger natural resource inputs

From Norway, with Love
This necessary expertise to catch Herring on such a scale was not originally Icelandic in origin, but Norwegian. They brought the equipment and know-how in the first years, but the Icelanders soon caught up and quickly came to rival the Norwegian fleet in fishing prowess by the 1920s.

The North of Iceland Blossoms
Nowhere were these advances felt more strongly than in the town of Siglufjörður.

Herring era, Iceland, Herring girl
Preparing the herring for export. Photo: National Museum of Iceland

Herring fishing had been taking place in the very same fjord, Eyjafjörður, for many years but Siglufjörður’s position further north in the fjord made it a prime fishing location.

With industrial technology came industrial manpower, bringing thousands of people (and their boats) to Siglufjörður to get a piece of the action. The harbour of Siglufjörður would be filled with hundreds of boats when the seas were rough or it wasn’t possible to fish. It was a sight to behold: a once tiny town town in the far reaches of the inhospitable north, teeming with people and working hard.

Enter the Herring girls
Fishing was never a one man job. Indeed, the entire community was involved.Getting the fish out of the water was by-and-large the reserve of men; once the fish was landed, it was the domain of women. The Herring Girls, as they came to be known, were the ones who further processed the herring and prepared it for export. Clearly, none of this would have been possible without the Herring Girls.



Depression-era Herring
As the Great Depression was ravaging the global economies and froze up activity in several markets, demand for Herring and the trade and industry that it generates saw Iceland and Icelanders through the difficult times. The Herring catch made up between 25-45% of national export earnings, and was the largest industry in Iceland by an order of magnitude, but it wouldn’t last forever, although few saw it coming.

This involvement of the entire workforce created a very special culture in the small Icelandic towns, a spirit of comradely where all were working toward.

Herrring Era, Herring Girls, Herring Era Museum Iceland
In the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður the Herring Girls living quarters are still standing untouched – it really feels like they just ran out for work.
Photo: Hilmir Berg

The End of Icelandic Herring
As time went on, so did the fishing, and indeed the overfishing. The 1960s marked an era of extensive Herring fishing, and massive catches over 25% larger than in the preceding decade, according to the FAO. Catches sizes plummeted through the 1970s and well into the 1980s globally, where they began to recover in the years after.

Herring is a migratory species. Just as they move into some fjords for some years, they will equally move out. And so, in 1969, that is exactly what they did. This brought about the collapse of the industry and the end of the glory years of the Icelandic Herring. Travelling through the East, you will find many vestiges of the old Herring industry: storage tanks and salting houses now abandoned remain as a reminder of what once was, a reminder of how far the nation has come since those times.

Moving Forward
The catastrophic results of overfishing had a deep impact on the Icelandic economy; it became evident something clearly had to be done to prevent this from happening again. The recognition that the collapse of the economy resulted from overfishing placed the number or gross tonnage of fish being caught at the heart of the policymaking. This resulted in the new, and totally environmentally sustainable fisheries management system that has been in place since the 1980s. Iceland has enjoyed sustainable fisheries ever since. Lessons were clearly learned.

Herring Era Museum, Iceland, Siglufjörður
The Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður is a wonderful place!
Photo: Hilmir Berg

The Series Continues…
In our next post, we will cover the kinds of fish that can be found in Icelandic water (other than Herring), some of which may surprise you, there’s an incredible diversity!

Alongside and interspersed throughout this blog, we present a short photo essay from the National Museum of Iceland which captures the spirit of the times very nicely in our opinion, with special mention going out to the Herring Girls.

If you’re curious about the Herring we highly recommend the The Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður. It is Iceland‘s largest maritime museum and the only Icelandic museum who has won the European Museum Award. Also, if you are travelling in Iceland be extra vigilant as you drive around on the Ring Road, for example in the East-fjords, you will see abandoned herring tanks and salting houses dotted around as vestiges of a bygone era, an Iceland that once was: it all had to start somewhere.