Lofoten Island’s Fishy History – the Arctic Cod Migration
The flocks of sea eagles and the fishermen emerge at the same time, heading out to sea. The usually quiet Lofoten Islands echo with the sound of motor boat engines. Framed by the Lofoten Mountains, the Vestfjord’s dark waters hold a secret – millions of Arctic cod are down there under your ship’s bottom, migrating to their annual mating grounds.
The Fishy History of the Lofoten Islands
Lofoten, the archipelago of islands that dips southwest off of the top of northern Norway, has always had ties with the Arctic cod.
There is petroglyphic evidence on the islands that this relationship between man and cod goes right back to just after the last Ice Age. The contemporary method of hanging fish out on racks for months at a time is believed to have changed little since people first arrived on the Lofoten Islands.
Starting in the Middle Ages, the cod fisheries became the primary source of export for Norway. Somewhere around 1100 A.D. the demand for dried fish exploded as more and more occupations were created where people no longer grew their own food.
Christianity also grew the demand for fish thanks to its various periods of fasting. During a Christian fast red meat was prohibited but fish was considered quite acceptable. And back in the Middle Ages the Christian fast wasn’t just a week or two around Lent and maybe a Friday here or there – fasting was serious business and the total accumulation of fasting days could well equal a third of a calendar year.
The Arctic cod from the Lofoten Islands was heaven-sent. Dried out, the cod kept all of its nutrients but only retained about one third of its weight, which made for a product that was easily shipped. It was a boon for the fishing families as well – farmland is hard to come by on the mountainous islands so flour and grains were in short supply, something that they were happy to trade for in exchange for all that fish.
The very first town ever created above the Arctic Circle (Vágar) was erected during the medieval ages to keep the steady flow of fish to the south and farm goods to the north flowing at a steady pace.
The growth wasn’t limited to the Lofoten Islands – in the south a halfway point was born – Bergen, which is to this day still the second most-populated city in Norway. It is estimated that fully 80% of Norway’s export value came from the fish trade at that time (around 1070 A.D.).
The Lofoten Tradition Carries On
We mentioned above the fish racks – a tradition carried on from the earliest fishing families to arrive on the Lofoten Islands. The fish have their heads removed and are split open. They are then tied by the tail to a partner and hung from the racks, all facing the same way, to catch the cleansing wind.
The temperatures are just right. For four months the fish sit exposed to the elements; not too hot so they rot and attract flies, and not so cold that they ever suffer from frost damage.
It’s an amazing sight – thousands upon thousands of fish hanging like odd decorations from ancient wooden racks. It can, on days when the wind doesn’t blow quite so hard, be something of a startling smell as well.
Your Lofoten cruise
What you’re seeing on your Arctic cruise to the Lofoten Islands is a connection between humanity and nature going back over 6000 years. For the legendary fisheries we sail around Kabelvåg, a fantastically charming historic village that was the centre of the Lofoten Island fisheries until the beginning of the 20th century. Pair that with the amazing mountainous beauty of the region, the Auroras and the available wildlife opportunities and you have yourself a Lofoten cruise well worth the taking.