When the fish went away

Norway’s history following the ebbs and flows of the sea

Atlantic Herring

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Atlantic herring, as depicted by Gervais et Boulart (1877).

Laguna Woods, Calif.

Cod and herring are the most acclaimed fish in Norwegian myth and literature. The Icelandic skald Snorri Sturluson mentions them in his medieval-period writings, as do later Norwegian authors, including Petter Dass, Alexander Kielland, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jonas Lie, Knut Hamsun, and Johan Bojer. Large carved wooden representations of cod, known as “king cods,” hang from many church ceilings in Norway in recognition of this fish’s importance in the Norwegian diet and economy over the ages. 

Leif Erikson sailed to America in 1001 with his ship filled with nutritious stockfish (wind-dried cod) to sustain his expedition. In its dried form, it retains both flavor and food value. Indeed, cod, particularly dried cod (tørrfisk), was the “food of the Vikings.” And, together with herring, it still fills the stomachs of hungry Norwegians today. 

The humble herring can perhaps be seen as the little brother of the cod, but it makes up for its small size with its sheer numbers and nutritious flesh. A single school of herring can occupy the volume of about 0.7 cubic miles, a space that could swallow up to 2,000 of Egypt’s Great Pyramids. Together with cod, herring gave Europeans a reliable and cheap source of protein for centuries. And much, if not most, of this cod and herring came in trade from Norwegian waters. 

These fish have been called Norway’s best ambassadors. Dried and salted cod (klipp­fisk) from Norway was especially prized as far away as Italy, Portugal, and Spain, where it formed the key ingredient in tasty, spicy fish stews (for example, bacalao). In return, the trade in cod and herring enabled Norwegians to buy wine, spices, flour, rice, grain, clothes, jewelry, and much, much more.

Atlantic Herring

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Atlantic herring, as depicted by David Starr Jordan (1907).

But as dependent as Norwegians were on cod and herring over the centuries, the fish themselves were not always dependable. Fish are fickle creatures that sometimes come and go as water temperatures, currents, and food sources vary over time. One of these dark times that the fish abandoned Norway was the period immediately preceding Norway’s struggle to become an independent nation in 1814. 

In the last decades of the 18th century, both cod and herring suddenly became scarce in Norwegian waters and did not return in large numbers until 1810. The fish stocks gradually improved from 1810 to 1830, but their temporary absence in the previous several decades had wreaked havoc on the Norwegian diet and economy. 

Norway was already dealing with the British coastal blockade, which had choked off grain imports during the Napoleonic Wars and further aggravated an existing famine spurred by widespread grain harvest failures around the country. The collapse of the Norwegian cod and herring fisheries could not have come at a worse time in Norway’s history. These are the hard times memorialized in Henrik Ibsen’s great epic poem Terje Vigen.

This was not the only time that Norway experienced a failure in its fisheries. Early records indicate that cod disappeared along the entire western coast of Norway between 1625 and 1629. Later in the 17th century, between 1660 and 1695, the cod catches became increasingly unpredictable. In 1695, the remaining great schools of cod again abandoned Norway’s western coastal waters, from Tromsø in the far north to Stavanger in the far south, leading to hunger and economic hardship for Norwegians. 

A full recovery of Norway’s depleted cod stocks did not come until the 1720s. In roughly the same time period, similar failures in the cod fishery occurred in Iceland between 1675 and 1705 and in the Faroe Islands between 1675 and 1700. The Shetland Islands, to the southeast of the Faroes, experienced a catastrophic collapse in its cod fishery in the same year as Norway, 1695.

The herring fishery, which had come back by 1830 in Norway, again collapsed between 1875 and 1885, causing great economic distress among fishermen. The drop in the herring catch was enormous; before the collapse, the herring take produced an average of 120,000 tons of fish, while after the collapse the fishery yielded only 10,000 tons, more than a tenfold decrease.

Following a slow recovery, the herring stocks finally rebounded after 1895, and an ample annual herring catch would again feed hungry Norwegians and be available for sale to the rest of Europe in return for a much needed cash infusion into the Norwegian economy. 

The temporary disappearance of herring from Norwegian waters in the late 19th century did not cause as much food stress as earlier in the century. By that time, Norwegians had fully adopted the nutritious potato as the accompaniment to every meal. Also, by then, tens of thousands of Norwegians had already immigrated to America and had reduced the number of mouths that needed to be fed in Norway.

What happened that created the conditions for these repeated crashes in Norway’s cod and herring fisheries? What happened was the worldwide Little Ice Age which began somewhere around 1275 C.E. and ended roughly around 1870 C.E. 

The causes of the Little Ice Age are complicated and not fully understood, but the earth’s atmospheric temperatures dropped precipitously at the start of the Little Ice Age. After this new cold regime took hold, the world’s temperatures averaged 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit below the average temperatures we enjoyed later in the 20th century. 

Sometimes it got colder, especially in the North Atlantic, where temperatures rose and fell abruptly in unpredictable patterns. Storms became more violent, glaciers grew, currents and winds shifted, and polar drift ice and cold polar waters frequently made their way into the warmer waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. 

In the last half of the 17th century, the North East Atlantic became so cold that at one time, polar sea ice attached itself to the north shores of Iceland and extended all the way across the Norwegian Sea to the northern coasts of Norway. 

Atlantic Cod

Image: NOAA Photo Library / Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of Atlantic cod derived from a plate at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Beyond the limits of the sea ice, cold Arctic surface waters flowed south of Iceland and northern Norway to bring the surface water temperatures in the Norwegian Sea to 9°F colder than those same waters in the 20th century. These cold waters inhibited the massive phytoplankton (plant plankton) blooms that usually formed on the Norwegian Sea in good times and provided a rich ocean grazing ground for the zooplankton (tiny animal plankton like krill shrimp) that were, in turn, eaten by the millions by the huge schools of roving herring. 

Feasting on the herring were the voracious schools of cod that sought out both herring and capelin to slake their enormous appetites. When the plankton blooms were weak or nonexistent, all of the animals in this food chain starved or migrated to warmer waters to the south. In addition, cod favor the 35.6° F isotherm in the Norwegian Sea, and they do not like it warm, nor do they do like it colder. When the sea-surface temperatures fall below 35.6° F, their kidneys cease to function, and they either die off or migrate to more agreeable waters. 

Thus, the failures in Norway’s cod and herring fisheries in the late 17th and the late 18th to early 19th century were most likely caused by the southward flow of sea ice and polar sea-surface waters at these times in Norway’s climate history. The late 17th century, as well as the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were two of the coldest periods identified in the Little Ice Age. These extreme fluctuations in the surface water temperatures brought misery and famine to Norway in the 17th century, the late 18th century, and the decade that just preceded the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814.

The herring fishery failure of the 1870s and 1880s came after the “official” end of the Little Ice Age, but cold Arctic surface waters may yet have been the culprit. Such cold blips still occur every now and again. Polar waters again advanced into the Norwegian Sea in the 1960s and 1970s, and this penetration of extremely cold sea-surface temperatures may have helped put the last nail in the coffin of the Norwegian and Icelandic herring fisheries in those two decades. 

There is no question that overfishing was a major contributor to the demise of the fisheries of the ’60s and ’70s, but some scientists believe the final blow to the fisheries was dealt by the temporary southward flow of Arctic waters. One fisheries historian, Lawrence Hamilton, described this inflow “as one of the most persistent and extreme variations in global climate change yet observed” in the 20th century. 

This downturn in the herring fishery also had a heavy economic and human cost. It decimated the Icelandic and Norwegian “herring towns” that had grown during the herring boom in the 1950s and early 1960s. It also bankrupted hundreds of fishermen along with the fish processors and other merchants who depended on their success.

Following the collapse of the herring fishery, the several nations that fished for herring in the North Atlantic placed a total ban on all fishing of the species from 1977 to 1983. Following the ban, Norway, Iceland, and the other nations that depended on the recovery of the fishery implemented strict controls and monitoring over the herring catch. 

Under scientifically informed cooperative management, the herring fishery now appears to be gradually making its way to recovery, but if polar waters swoop down into the Norwegian Sea again, like they have in the past, it may be another story. And with global warming, the next culprit to put a damper in both the cod and herring fisheries may be an unexpected penetration of warm water from the south, rather than polar waters from the north, as in the Little Ice Age and in the 20th century.

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.