Smolts & Saithe. First Day of Norway-UK Exchange.

Rosie Magudia is accompanying a group of fishermen and scientists from the UK case study, as they visit Steigen, Norway. Her post below is an update on the first day of the return trip of an exchange visit, which saw Norwegian fishermen visit Devon last year

Glorious sunshine beat on a white wilderness as I peered out of the window. I was looking into the emptiness of Steigen, Norway – home to our exchange partners’ fishermen, scientists and some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Accompanying a group of fishermen from Devon, UK, I’ve travelled to Norway to better understand the fishing industry in Steigen, and how fishermen here can ensure the future of their fisheries by collaborating with one another and scientists.

So this morning, after two flights, a ferry ride, a bus journey and a deep night’s sleep – the British contingent arose, breakfasted and were warmly greeted with talks from Jan Andersen, President of Steigen’s Fishermen’s Association, Steigen’s Community Manager Per Loeken and the aquaculture firm “Mainstream”‘s Sales Manager Kato Andersen.

From listening to the perspectives of these three men, heavily involved in their regional community, it became clear that Steigen, a rural community in northern Norway, faces many of same challenges as the rural south west of England.

Relying mainly upon fisheries, tourism and increasingly, fish farming, Steigen’s population is ageing and shrinking. Counting 3,500 people 35 years ago, Steigen is home to 2,600 residents today, and witnessed only 15 births last year. The younger generations are leaving for the lights of Oslo, seeking higher salaries and a wider array of jobs. Without children and grandchildren, Steigen is steadily losing its infrastructure (such as schools and hospitals), and the traditional industries like fishing are dying off.  Between 1997 and 2007, Steigen lost 46.6% of its fishing fleet, and the youngsters “don’t come back until they’ve built their cottage in the wildnerness” [Jan Andersen].

However, all three men were positive about their community’s future, pinning their hopes on the growing industry of fish farming as a way of attracting a younger work force and population. And despite the similar product of fish farming and wild-capture fisheries, Jan & Kato Andersen maintain that there is a good relationship between the two industries, the former citing tourism as the more problematic challenge to fishermen’s livelihoods.

So in the afternoon, we visited the fish farming site of “Mainstream“, the world’s second largest salmon farming company. Operating in Chile, Norway and Canada, last year, in Norway alone,  the company produced 55,000 tonnes of Salmon. The scale of such production can be brought into perspective by considering that the UK’s total purchase of Salmon was 47,000 tonnes.

Our exploration of this booming source of income started with a trip to sea (what else!) to view a seawater production site in Hammer. Leaving land, I clung to my camera in preparation for a bitterly cold boat ride. But after the quickest of journeys, the boat slowed as we circled large open water nets, according to our guide, each containing upwards of 90,000 fish. Unusually, many of the fishermen were speechless. Vast numbers relating to feed quantities, water circulation and salmon production were given forth. The mechanics and glory of human efficiency were gasped and clucked at. Dollar signs coloured the whites of our eyes, and we looked on.

Next stop – the freshwater site for smolt production in Dyping. For those of you not in the know, smolt are juvenile salmon. In the wild, salmon are born in freshwater, migrate to the sea (saltwater) and then return to freshwater to reproduce. So a fish farming system mimics this by rearing young salmon in tanks of fresh water.

On being welcomed into the site’s main entrance, we were asked to peel off our many layers of cold-weather gear and don a white coat, wellies and some sterilant hand wash to mooch around the facilities  Spotless and small, the fish farming factory was the epitome of efficiency in the food chain. On leaving an office with a view to die for (see photos!), we were taken to the single, stainless steel clad processing room, where each fish produced is individually hand-vaccinated against the threat of disease. Handling 150,000 fish a day, this is a massive undertaking for the highly trained staff involved, who are often brought in from foreign lands to process the fish for a short period of a few weeks at a time. We then left the warmth of the factory to brave the cold of the smolt tanks outside. Again, each tank contained vast numbers of swimming stock; 120,000 fish per tank, and the stainless steel pathways sprawled connecting ever more tanks, each mesmerising, pitted against a backdrop mountains, sun and snow.

There was no doubt that the Devon crab fishermen were impressed at the awesome scale of the fish farming operation. There was no doubt I was. But I wasn’t sure about the implications of fish farming for Steigen’s future. While cited as a hope for Steigen community’s recovery, the plant we visited, while turning over millions of fish, only employs 4 people. Moreover the fish species produced is salmon – a healthy, popular and relatively cheap product (on being farmed), which out competes many other species in the market place. While the fish farmers may not be producing the same species of fish as the fishermen, they are producing fish at a cheap price. Is it too pessimistic to imagine that cheap salmon may replace more expensive wild-caught species in the Norwegian market place ?

But perhaps I’m being too hasty; too quick to judge. In Steigen, the entire community, including fishermen have been discussing this issue for years, conversations stretching back to the 1990s. They feel they have come to a sensible agreement on how to partition Norways’ wonderful natural resources to satisfy both industries, so we can only hope and see.

Tomorrow morning, we’re rising bright and early to go fishing proper with the Norwegian fishermen. As a land-lubber prone to sea-sickness, I must admit, I have my reservations. In my heart, I know this will be the best part of the trip – I just have to eat a light breakfast…

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