Regional importance

Regional importance


Siglufjörður, in North Iceland used to be the center of herring fisheries in Iceland

Photo: Hreiðar Valtýsson


Composition of the fishing fleet by size categories and region; 2011 numbers

Source: Statistics Iceland


Pumping of capelin onboard the freezer trawler Guðmundur

Photo: Þorbjörn Víglundsson


Catch by major species group and region of landing; 2011 numbers

Source: Statistics Iceland


Catch by major species group and region of processing; 2011 numbers

Source: Statistics Iceland

Evolution of towns in Iceland

The first permanent settlement in Iceland was in Reykjavík in 874, the current capital. However, Reykjavík did not have official status as a town until 1786, then with only 302 inhabitants, largely made up of Danish merchants and officials. The motive for Reykjavik to become the capital is, therefore, not that it was the first settlement location; another explanation will have to be found.

An important feature of Reykjavík must have been its proximity to favourable farmland areas and how relatively easy it was to reach it on land from other major agricultural areas in South and West Iceland (crossroads). Also of major importance was a good natural harbour and the closeness to fertile fishing grounds. Furthermore, the sea around Reykjavík is always ice free. Many towns around Iceland have two or three of these factors, but the Reykjavik area is the only one with all of them.

It is no coincidence that all of the other first towns around Iceland were also along the coastline. Furthermore, many of them are close to the outer reaches of fjords and bays which are usually colder and less sheltered than the inner parts. However, this was essential as they were closer to the fishing grounds; with a fishing fleet mainly made up of rowing boats this was important.

Several seasonal semi-urban areas had developed since the 14th century, when the importance of fisheries increased considerably. This was because for better or for worse the workforce was needed in agriculture and fisheries at different times of the year. The major season in agriculture was during the late spring and summer, while the fisheries were mostly conducted in late winter and early spring when cod and other species were migrating to their spawning grounds. This made the workforce more efficient, as work was available throughout most of the year. Furthermore, there was no separation between fishermen and farm workers at that time; these were the same people. However, this prevented the development of specialization and thus, for a long time, hampered the evolution of proper towns in Iceland.

This pattern only began to change in the late 19th and early 20th century when decked sailing boats and later, trawlers, came into use. These first and foremost required good harbour facilities; distance from the fishing grounds was no longer a major issue. The arrival of these large capacity boats can be described as the Icelandic industrialization.

Modern times

Today there is a considerable difference in the regional importance of various fisheries. The capital and the Southwest regions, with good harbours and good fishing grounds, operate a diverse fleet and a large part of the trawler fleet. The fishing grounds are even closer by and stabler off the West region and the West fjords. This is where a large proportion of the small boat fleet is located. The Northeast and East regions also have a number of small boats, although fewer. There are few medium-sized boats, however; these tend to be used for seasonal spawning migration fisheries that are mainly conducted off the south coast. Large pelagic boats and trawlers are, however, especially important for the Northeast and East regions. The south has mainly medium-sized boats used for the spawning time fishery.

Although the closeness to the fishing grounds has declined as a factor in urban development, it still plays a role, especially for the fleet of smaller boats. However, it is not correct to assume that the small boat fisheries are basically sessile; they also move to some extent with the fish and land the catch away from the hometown. Furthermore, a large proportion of the catch from the smaller boats is sold on fish markets and then transported by land all over Iceland.

The fleet of larger boats has more mobility; a fundamental issue for these boats is a home town with a good, sheltered harbour and ample services, much the same as when the trawlers started operating in the beginning of the 20th century. The larger vessels operate in various regions of the country; i.e. they follow the seasonal behaviour of the fish. At the end of each fishing trip, the catch is often discharged in the nearest port; based on current price of fish, transportation and service availability, the catch is transported by land to a processing factory, often located in a distant town.

With growing mechanisation in the fish processing, fewer hands are required and many of the towns that grew rapidly during the fishing industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century, now face a decline in population and business activities.

The ratio of catch landed in the harbour nearest to the fishing grounds and then transported by lorry to a processing factory in a different location, has increased considerably in recent years. This has enhanced the efficiency of the fleet; a higher proportion of each trip is spent fishing than sailing. This tendency is more or less driven by increased demand for fresh fish and the consolidation of the processing companies, leading to improved economy of scale and scope as a result of larger plants.

A significant number of Icelandic fishing companies are vertically structured; i.e. the same company owns the boats and the fish processing factory, and, in some cases, also runs a wholesale enterprise and the distribution network.

Until the mid 20th century, the Icelandic road transportation system was rather primitive. However, onward from that time this has steadily improved and in 1974 the Icelandic ring road connected all regions of the country. Improvements in the road system, good international air links to several cities in the US and Europe, along with frequent shipping services to the major ports of Europe and the US have eased and accelerated urban development.

The Icelandic ITQ quota system has been a controversial issue in discussion on rural development. The focus of the debate revolves around the ITQ system. Is the quota system the main reason for the decline of the coastal communities or not? It is certainly known that towns have lost a large part of their quotas and have suffered because of that. Many towns, however, that have abundant quotas have also suffered a decline in the number of inhabitants.

Overall, the importance of fisheries for urban areas has probably declined considerably as the fishing fleet is more mobile now and the country’s transportation system has improved. The number of people employed in the fisheries sector has been remarkably similar between regions, although the major trend in the sector is a decline in jobs. However, the importance of the fisheries sector is higher in the provincial regions where a larger proportion of people is employed in the sector. Recently the capital region has been the fastest growing region in Iceland, while the population in the rural regions is declining. Other factors, such as workforce availability, the standard of living and the growing service sector have taken over the fundamental role of fisheries in urban development.

Hörður Sævaldsson, University of Akureyri