National Geographic : 2013 Jun
126 national geographic • June 2013 Odd Helge Isaksen, who nevertheless is deter- mined to follow in the Lofoten tradition and become a fisherman. A resident of Røst, a close- knit island community located at the heart of the Lofoten cod banks, Isaksen is making his way into the business the hard way, in an open boat hauling in cod one by one on handlines, in much the way his Viking forebears did a thousand years ago. Such dedication is rare. In the past ten years only Isaksen and one other young man on Røst decided to pursue fishing as a career. “I’m one of the new Vikings,” he jokes one bit- terly cold winter evening as he motors into the harbor after a long day at sea. Coming in hours after the rest of the fleet returned, his boat is laden to the gunwales with hundreds of pounds of cod. Black Sabbath is blaring on his iPod as he steers his boat with one hand and updates his Facebook account on his mobile phone with the other. “My friends from school think it’s kind of funny that I decided to become a fisherman,” Isaksen says. “But they sure are impressed with the money I’m making.” COMPARED WITH Lofoten’s cod industry and its thousand-year history, commercial whaling was a latecomer. “Whaling from boats was un- known in my grandfather’s day,” recalls Oddvar Berntsen, now 83 and the last surviving resi- dent of his fishing village. “The boats were just too small. Occasionally the villagers might kill a whale from shore if it came in close, but this was looked upon as opportunistic, done for food.” When commercial whaling finally arrived in Norway, it did so with a bang—literally. In the 1860s a Norwegian shipping and whal- ing magnate named Svend Foyn devised the grenade-tipped harpoon. It was a game chang- er, thrusting Norway to the fore of the world’s whaling nations. Norway’s fishermen, however, blamed the new industry for poor catches during the 1870s, since whales were believed to drive schools of fish closer to shore, where fishermen in small boats could catch them. After a series of bitter dis- putes between fishermen and whalers, Norway pull on the young and ambitious. In his 1921 coming-of-age classic The Last of the Vikings, Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer described the legendary island chain as “a land in the Arctic Ocean that all the boys along the coast dreamed of visiting some day, a land where exploits were performed, fortunes were made, and where fish- ermen sailed in a race with Death.” For a few gold rush months each year, mil- lions of Atlantic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn among the reefs and shoals of Lofoten. Fishermen have been flock- ing here to cash in on the bonanza for more than a thousand years. In addition to sitting astride one of the world’s richest fisheries, these islands are also blessed with a near-perfect climate for drying fish in the open air to make stockfish. This durable, highly nutritious cod jerky sus- tained the Vikings on their long voyages and became Norway’s most lucrative export during the Middle Ages. The immense wealth of the dried cod trade, and the possibility that jackpot riches might await any man with a boat, courage, and a bit of luck, lured fortune seekers by the thousands. Grainy photographs from the 1930s show Lo- foten’s harbors jammed with boats. Nowadays factory trawlers from the big seafood companies down south do the work of many boats, netting and processing a high percentage of the catch. Small family-owned boats that brought their catches to local merchants and kept the Lofoten villages alive have become endangered species. The cod are still there, still running in the mil- lions, still a lucrative business. But as the older fishermen sell out and retire, seafood compa- nies snap up their quotas for big money. Even the sons of fishermen who want to carry on the family business may find their paths blocked by the cost of buying a boat and a quota—typically three-quarters of a million dollars. “Banks don’t want to lend you that kind of money when you’re my age,” says 22-year-old Writer Roff Smith holds a degree in Norse literature. Photographer Marcus Bleasdale has won numerous awards for his coverage of human rights issues.