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
As fish probably rank at number 2 in a Cat’s Top 10 (above grooming, below sleeping), Ike just had to go and visit the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður – but he ended up learning a lot about how this fish shaped not just the town, but the whole of the country.
First some history – At the start of the 20th Century, Norwegian companies began fishing for herring in Icelandic waters and setting up ‘herring towns’ to process the catch onshore. As well as being employed by the Norwegians, enterprising Icelanders also started their own businesses and by 1916 locals were processing more fish than foreigners. And although many places in Iceland had herring processing plants, Siglufjörður was the most changed. It went from a tiny hamlet to the fifth largest town in Iceland in a few years with 23 salting stations, 5 reducing factories, over 3000 residents, hundreds of ships and thousands of temporary labourers and fishermen during the herring season. At one point, Siglufjörður accounted for 20% of all Icelandic exports.
After the boom years between the 2 world wars fishing stocks were decreasing from 1950, but at the same time, technological advances meant that more fish were being caught than ever before. Then for the 1969 season, the herring just failed to appear – overfishing had taken its toll and the impact on the herring towns and the whole country was felt for many years after. In fact, the infamous ‘Cod Wars’ between the UK and Iceland were partly driven by Iceland not wanting to make the same mistakes with another fish species.
Luckily the herring were able to recover and numbers in Icelandic waters are once again healthy thanks to conservation efforts and strict quotas. Although it is not in Siglufjörður, Iceland now has 11 fish processing plants with a capacity of 10,500 tonnes per day (compared to 16,000 tonnes during the 1960s).
Now, Ike travelled onto the museum. The first building Ike visited was the Boathouse. Here he saw a recreation of a fisherman’s store and got behind the wheel of the herring ship Týr.
Next, he clocked in at the Grana fish reducing factory. Here fish oil was extracted from the herring and the fish meal left was also sold as pet food. Although it is not part of the reconstruction this was a hot, noisy and smelly place to work.
Finally, Ike visited the Salting Station. As well as fish oil, herring were prepared and salted for eating. This was done outside in the fresh air of the long Icelandic summer days. This work was carried out by women and the ‘herring girls’, who were usually single and not locals, lived in dormitories together. As the herring girls were paid by the barrel, whilst men who worked in the factories, office and docks were paid by the hour, the women could often earn more than the men. And although it was physically hard work with long hours, it was a good opportunity to meet eligible men and maybe find a good husband away from their usual small villages and farms.
All in all Ike, Helen and Traff really enjoyed the museum – who knew a herring could be so interesting!