Circumnavigating Iceland, Part 3: Herring and Puffins

We reached the fjord town of Siglufjordur in early morning, after another rock and roll night. This town was once the hub of the global herring industry, and after Zodiacking ashore, we walked through the town to a house where the ‘herring girls’ once lived.

Image result for siglufjörður iceland

A cautionary tale of overfishing

Siflufjordur is the herring capital of the world. The herring industry began in the 1800’s but really took off in the early part of the 20th century and became an important factor in Iceland’s climb from poverty of affluence. The international herring fishery in Icelandic waters took in between 10 000 and 25 000 tons per year during the first decades of the 20th century, and following the government’s assertion of jurisdiction over herring fishing out to 12 miles from shore in 1958, the catches exceeded half a million tons. Despite being warned of the perils of overfishing, the fishing continued and catches fell precipitously by the late 1960’s, when the only remnant of herring stock could be found off Norway. The stock slowly recovered in the Norway waters and herring returned to Icelandic waters in the 1990s. Fishing quotas are now highly regulated and the processing of the herring is automated.

Who were the herring girls? They were the daughters of farmers who migrated to Siglufjordur in the thousands to process and salt the cod from May to October, before the herring disappeared. The task was arduous but well paying, and when thousands of foreign fisherman came ashore, this largely young and unattached workforce found opportunities for dancing, music and entertaining – there were eighteen pubs in the 1920s.

Herring Girl House

The herring girls lived anywhere from 16 to 30 in a room with only one or two bathrooms. Here is a house where the girls lived. Their work in processing and salting the herring was arduous, standing at the boxes and packing the barrels for 14-20 hours a day, with little time to eat, since they were paid by the barrel and had to keep up with the catches brought in. Men working around the herring line brought empty barrels and took full ones away; the women controlled the pace. The work was wet, hard, and often cold. Hands immersed all day in fish and salt suffered from cuts, blisters, and infections. Some women got so tired they collapsed.

Here are some pictures showing the processing of the herring by a herring girl, who first must put on yellow rubber pants.  Pink salt is used on the herring and they are stacking in alternating rows in the barrels. The fish heads are collected in a basket at the end of the sluice – I have no idea what was done with them, but they probably are used in pet food now (plus they’d make a good fish broth).

The upside of all this hard work was that many young people from poor backgrounds used their savings to invest elsewhere in housing, education, and new businesses: in one generation, they stepped into the middle class.

The Herring Museum is the brightly colored building, which used to be a processing factory

After some dancing to some herring girls’ waltzes played on an accordion (accordions are a favorite instrument in Iceland), we walked over to the Herring Era Museum where we could see how a functional, early herring factory was set up. I also got to try smoked and pickled herring (delicious) served with aqua vit, the Iceland alcohol of choice.

We retuned to the ship for lunch and pulled away from Siglufjordur and headed for Grimsey Iceland on rather rough seas. This is a small island straddling the Arctic Circle, located about 25 miles off the mainland. Its principle attraction are its rookeries, housing a variety of bird species: puffins, arctic terns, gulls, and guillemots. There was no real harbor, so we zodiaked in.

Here I am standing on the Arctic Circle (hubs had wandered off to take pictures).

  • Then we bused to the lighthouse where we could see sheep and puffins.                                Lighthouse, note the rookery in the stone cliff below.

It was easy to get close up and personal with puffins. Sixty percent of the world’s puffins nest in Iceland, so not surprisingly there were hundreds of them to see. I did a blog post on puffins, so check that out (P= Puffin).

Since my phone didn’t have very good resolution, here is a photo from my blog on these endearing birds.

The children of Iceland rescue newly fledged puffins who are drawn by the bright lights of the fjord towns.

It was a long day, lots of walking on my broken foot – but a version of Hell awaited us the next day!



17 thoughts on “Circumnavigating Iceland, Part 3: Herring and Puffins”

  1. There are ways of life sometimes so alien to ours that we cannot imagine. Fascinating stuff and beautiful houses, although I don’t think I would have survived to such a lifestyle. Looking forward to more adventures, Noelle!

  2. Pingback: Circumnavigating Iceland, Part 3: Herring and Puffins | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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