A tale of an Arctic cod

Text: Sohvi Kangasluoma

Photo: Juho Karhu

As we enter a harbor on a calm winter night in northern Iceland, the distinct smell of fish welcomes us. The scent of a fish greets us in almost every harbor, as the small boat harbors are often surrounded by fiskkaup — fish plants where the fishermen bring the fish to be processed.

The scent of fish has followed our journey all the way from northern Norway to Faroe Islands and finally here to Iceland. Fishing has been, and still is, the backbone of these North Atlantic nations: fish and its importance are seen and felt within all these societies and cultures. The towns were born around good fishing grounds and safe harbors, where the fish factories were built. In a way, these marine societies emerged around the beautiful Arctic cod, majestic fin whales and mysterious routes of the herring.

In all the harbors, small or big, you still see few of these traditional small two-person boats, fishing for their quota of Arctic cod, or the little bit bigger longliners. However, the nature of fishing has changed. Each year there are fewer small boats and more huge trawlers owned by a few companies, while fewer people earn their living from the fish. The bottom trawlers catch many sorts of fish: cod, haddock, saithe, redfish, and Greenland halibut. The changed, some might say evolved, technologies give little to no chance for the fish (or any other living creatures) to escape from the monsters scraping the seafloor.

Photo: Juho Karhu

The amount of fish allowed to be caught is determined by nationally defined quotas for each species. The operation, division and practice of the quota policies vary a bit within these Nordic nations, but the development of the ownership structure of the quotas is increasingly shifting towards the big actors. For example, in Iceland, in 2015, 70% of the quota was owned by the 20 largest companies, while in 1992 only 36% of the quota was owned by the 20 biggest companies. This means that there are fewer and fewer small boats and actors, while the remaining vessels (and companies) get bigger and bigger. (Chambers, Helgadóttir & Carothers 2017; Icelandic Directorate of Fisheries 2016.)

Besides the changes in the equipment and quota policies, also these odd-looking circles in the ocean have emerged: fish farms. As we glide along the northern waters and northern coastlines, the little fish signs found on the navigation maps have become more and more common, notifying the tired sailors to keep an eye for these out-of-place looking sea circles.

In all these North Atlantic marine nations, Iceland, Faroes and Norway, fish farming (interestingly, also called aquaculture) forms a vast part of the fishing industry nowadays. Huge amounts of fish, usually salmon, are first grown in hatcheries, and then released and kept in sea cages, attached to the sea bed in calm fjords.

The concept of fishing, in its traditional sense, is quite hard to find within the large-scale trawling — and especially in the fish farm industry. The ecological harm caused by trawling is well-documented, as well as the damage to the seabed and water quality, caused by fish farming. The philosophy behind fish farms seems odd, at least to me. The stock of fish is approached like a bag of seeds grown to make bread, even though the fish are living creatures, with a proven ability to feel pain.

Our attachment to the non-humans and the environment is crucial in defining what we value and what we care for. Laura Kaikkonen and Ingrid van Putten (2021) examine the attitudes people have about deep-sea mining. They note that the symbolic value people place on the deep sea, or other remote areas, shapes how people feel about extracting it. The emotional association, more than knowledge, determines people’s attitude about extracting it. Personal experiences are crucial also in relation to fisheries. In her research, Andrea Nightingale (2013) explores the attachment of fishermen to the sea, the subjectivities and emotions they have towards the environment and the communities, and how it affects the management of fisheries. She shows how the emotive reactions and the wish to sustain the local fish ground are connected to the sense of belonging to a place, to a community.

Photo: Juho Karhu

Chambers, Helgadóttir & Carothers (2017, 4) note that after the changes within the Icelandic quota system, “entitlement to fish became detached from place and became the property of individuals who were free to sell their quota outside the community”. The personal connection to the fish is different when the creature in question is swimming far away from your home. To understand and preserve the relationship of humans to the sea, and to the fish, the role of emotions and affect must be understood and acted upon. The circle in the middle of a distant fjord, or the huge trawler sailing the faraway seas, is inaccessible and thus invisible from the people it is all grown and caught for, us consumers — making it also harder to feel connection or empathy towards the fish.

For me, Critical Arctic Studies means looking at things from a different viewpoint. It means deconstructing what has been constructed, questioning the unquestioned, and challenging the unchallenged. Being able to look at the Arctic environment from the level of a captivated salmon, and perhaps, challenge the capitalist ontology the modern societies work on.  In practice, paying attention to the patterns and practices in the northern minds and societies, that are not always considered as meaningful, or don’t always get a say — just like the Arctic cod.

Sohvi Kangasluoma is a PhD candidate at University of Helsinki. Her dissertation focuses on the production of oil and gas in the Arctic, and its entanglements with gender, emotions and human security. She lives in a sailboat in the northern waters, currently in Iceland, and observing fishing boats is her daily hobby.


Chambers, C., Helgadóttir, G. & Carothers, C. (2017) “Little kings”: community, change and conflict in Icelandic fisheries. Maritime Studies 16, 10 (2017). DOI: 10.1186/s40152-017-0064-6

Kaikkonen, L. & Van Putten, I. (2021) We may not know much about deep sea mining, but do we care about mining it? People and Nature vol 3, issue 4. DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10224

Nightingale, A. (2013) Fishing for nature: the politics of subjectivity and emotion in Scottish inshore fisheries management. Environment and Planning vol 45, p. 2362 – 2378. DOI:10.1068/a45340

Icelandic Directorate of Fisheries (2016) Available:  https://www.fiskistofa.is/english

ICES Fisheries overview (2019) Available: https://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/FisheriesOverview_IcelandicWaters_2019.pdf

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