Studying the economy of the island life

Profiles of Norwegian science


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Smøla is home to the first large-scale wind farm in Norway.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Small-island life: the idyllic dream or the terrifying nightmare? Both icons blanket classic literature, from Robinson Crusoe to The Island of Doctor Moreau, and popular entertainment, such as the 2005 flick The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

Science, too, explores islands and island life. We recently published an island studies paper about the Norwegian archipelago of Smøla. We investigated the prospects and possibilities provided by tourism for viable income and jobs. This location had never before been studied in such detail.

Smøla lies in central Norway, 75 miles west of Trondheim. Having been inhabited for at least eight millennia, the municipality today comprises nine principal inhabited islands providing a home for a declining population of around 2,000 people. These islands are connected by roads using causeways and bridges, but no fixed link joins the archipelago and the mainland. Travel is via boat, including ferries for the public, or highly restricted helicopter access.

Although almost one-third of the population earns money from public administration jobs, the most important livelihoods are small-scale agriculture and commercial fisheries. Enterprise remains important, leading to tourism as a main industry.

Nature brings in birders, including for one of the world’s largest and densest populations of white-tailed sea eagles. The landscapes and bogs offer scenery and hiking but have not been well developed for tours. A few owner-operator businesses offer naturalist experiences.

Interfering with bird watching is the first large-scale wind farm in Norway, opened in western Smøla in 2002. The wind farm covers about 10 percent of Smøla’s land area and can be seen across many of the flat landscapes. We were told that the turbines kill about one bird each month, half being sea eagles.

The wind farm provides local electricity and several jobs. Most tourism to the site is by business tourists seeing how to set up a windfarm. Although prospects exist to tap into the recreational tourism market, tourism based on renewable energy has always had mixed results around the world.

Fishing and hunting tourism are more prominent. Fishers tend to be self-catering, not contributing extensively to the economy. Overfishing concerns led to restricting how much catch could be taken off-island, although monitoring is intermittent.

Hunting greylag geese has declined, tends to be on weekends, and is principally from people with personal connections to the island. Hunters bond strongly with the farmers because, by hunting on cultivated land, they control and scare away geese that regularly eat the grass being grown for livestock feed. Mink and red deer are subjects of small-scale hunting.

The heritage tourist can enjoy peat harvesting, Neolithic artifacts, and copper and iron quarries: interesting, yet not so appealing to an extensive international audience. The oldest preserved kettle in Norway would be a quick stop for those traveling around the archipelago already.

Norway’s largest active fishing village south of the Arctic Circle, Veiholmen, produces a picturesque setting for making the baccalao delicacy. As an easy stroll with gorgeous photo opportunities (in good weather), the village is one of the most popular trips for tourists to Smøla.

Veiholmen offers accommodation similar to fishing huts along with restaurants serving local fish recipes. The scenery and community have become popular for purchasing second homes, reducing affordability for locals.

Smøla’s two museums offer insight into local history, yet infrequent opening times discourage visitors. A 12th-century church, one of the oldest in Norway, is open regularly only in July.

The Kuli stone discovered in Smøla, from over a thousand years ago, dates the introduction of Christianity to Norway. The real stone resides in a Trondheim museum with a replica standing at the original location. Tourists might consider traveling to Smøla to see the original site but would meet only a facsimile stone.

Many ideas have been floated to expand Smøla’s tourism. From kelp harvesting to bird hides, corporate retreats to living with a farming or whaling family, none yet grasps the imagination enough to become a major job creator.

Our research shows that relying on tourism livelihoods might not be successful, but supplementing income with tourism could be enhanced. The main challenge is appealing to tourists without annoying others or the locals who still want Smøla as a home.

Many living in Smøla prefer the non-urban life, with regular fishing, hunting, and boating among the island quiet and calm. Others would sacrifice some of this lifestyle for more lucrative or stable livelihoods. As with many islands around the world, often discussed by island studies scholars, a balance is needed to achieve desired island life without wrecking what makes it desirable.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.