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Stories from Norway

The epic journey of the skrei

Since the Viking Age, the annual arrival of the skrei, the king of the cods, has been cause for great celebration in Norway. Today, the seasonal miracle is celebrated among foodies and chefs worldwide.  

The epic journey of the skrei
“Put on your life jackets and let’s get to it!” a stern voice calls out from a quiet pier in Lofoten.

After several days of snow, bone-chilling winds and white mountaintops covered in thick fog, Henningsvær in Vågan is finally ready to break into a bright blue and sun-drenched smile. It’s 6:00 a.m., and a choir of engines is starting to hum along the bay.

Today will turn out to be a good day for fishing skrei, which is the Norwegian name for the spawning Norwegian Atlantic cod.

Enormous shoals of tasty white gold

Below the surface of Vestfjorden in Northern Norway, this unique visitor returns year after year - by the billion.

Skrei means “wanderer,” referring to the 600-mile journey these cod make every year from the icy Barents Sea to the somewhat warmer waters off the Northern Norwegian coast to spawn. The epicenter for this seasonal event is the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands.

Skrei is strictly seasonal and skrei fishing is closely monitored. Every year, the inhabitants of Norway eagerly await the return of their special seasonal cod, and more and more discerning consumers worldwide are discovering the sublime quality and flavor as well. The swim through the rough Barents Sea gives skrei its distinctive firm and lean white meat.

Available only during the winter season, fresh skrei has become one of Norway’s most sought-after seafood exports, celebrated by chefs in some of the world’s finest restaurants. Skrei is also the only seafood product in the world with its own quality patrol, working throughout the season to ensure the best quality fish from sea to table.

Something big is going on

Back in Lofoten, February is drawing to a close. This year’s skrei season has only just begun, and something’s going on. Something big. There have been credible reports of large schools of skrei finally making their way down south, impossible to miss for seasoned fishers.

No wonder the captain and owner of the fishing boat Storstein, Arve Guttelvik, is in an optimistic mood. After being forced to dock for some time due to mechanical problems, Arve is ready to try his luck and test his skills once again. He has even put on a novelty hat for the occasion, as if to sweeten the pill for the non-professional guests present on his boat this morning:

“When you’re a true fisherman, you spend the day - not part of it, but all day - out there.”

Fair warning. Out there, into the open seas, we go.

In cod we trust

“Satan in London!” the ship’s senior crew member shouts somewhat curiously, as a piece of equipment gets stuck while he was busy trying to haul in the seine a few hours later. Expletives such as this, along with creative swearing and ancient incantations, are all part of the Northern Norwegian fishing tradition, as are certain mythical beliefs. Did you know, for instance, that making love before heading out to fish is believed to help secure a great catch?

Undoubtedly, cod has been a major Norwegian export ever since the Viking Age. The region’s most important livelihood has been a primary source of income and pride for many people along the Northern coast since time immemorial.

As the mayor of Vågan, Eivind Holst, pointed out before last year’s World Cod Fishing Championship - “This annual winter adventure has secured the inhabitants of Lofoten easy access to food for 10,000 years. Hundreds of generations of fishermen and their families along the Norwegian coastline have survived because of Lofoten and its resources.”

A sustainable sensation

In 2019, fishing the Norwegian Atlantic cod may be less about desperate survival and more about harvesting the marine resources in a way that is both profitable and sustainable. The latter is crucial here in Norway.

In fact, the Norwegian Atlantic cod stock has been classified as having full reproductive capacity by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea – thus deeming its harvesting sustainable.  The gift will keep on giving, it seems.

As for the Storstein, it’s late in the evening when captain Arve Guttelvik and his crew return to the fish landing in Henningsvær. The result? Close to 22 tons of the most delicious fish the sea has to offer.

The boat’s elder gets the final, typically understated, word.

Not bad. Not bad at all, goddammit.