History - The Icelanders and the sea


Ágúst Ólafsson, fisherman on the trawler Ver, around the year 1925

Photo: Guðbjartur Ásgeirsson / Icelandic National Museum


Alfreð Garðarsson, first mate on the gillnetter Þorleifur EA in 2008

Photo: Tryggvi Sveinsson

Iceland’s geographical location, nature and topography have meant that from the earliest days the nation has been dependent, to a considerable extent, upon gathering and utilizing the riches of the sea. Animal husbandry has, admittedly, been practised from the dawn of Icelandic history, and according to written sources grain was cultivated in some quantity during the first two or three centuries after the country’s settlement, around 900 AD. By the mid-twelfth century onwards Iceland’s climate grew colder; the average annual temperature dropped by more than one centigrade and fell below 3ºC during the coldest period, which lasted through the 17th and 18th centuries and well into the 19th.

These figures are based on estimates, and hence they cannot be taken as being absolutely accurate. However, the overall picture is clear, and the conclusion is simple: Iceland cannot be deemed at all fertile, or suitable for agriculture. But the Icelanders had another resource, which kept the nation alive for centuries, provided valuable export commodities, and became, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the foundation for an economic renaissance and development in Icelandic society. By about 1800 Iceland was one of Europe’s poorest countries, but, thanks to the fisheries and the prolific fishing grounds off the island’s coasts, by 2000 it was one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Some of the richest and most prolific fishing grounds in the North Atlantic Ocean are in the seas around Iceland. For centuries, these fishing grounds provided a near-inexhaustible resource to the Icelanders. From the sea came much needed food and valuable trade commodities. While catches of fish may fluctuate unpredictably from one period to another, the Icelandic experience was that they were more reliable than the fruits of the earth. Historical records also reveal that in hard times people flocked to the coast – not least the poor, who had the least chance of surviving in rural areas. The chances of survival were better by the sea but when catches failed entirely – as sometimes happened – this often led to famine.

The story of the Icelandic fisheries is not simply economic history and can by no means be confined to the facts of fishing technique and vessels, catches and fish processing. In the history of a fishing and seafaring nation like Iceland, the annals of the fisheries constitute above all cultural history covering an important aspect of the nation’s culture and heritage.

Jón Þ. Þór- University of Akureyri