Searching for Skrei

Camiel Derichs, the MSC's European Regional Director, goes on the trail of Norway's cod king.

At 5am in a Norwegian fishing village, it isn’t so much the arctic wind that’s keeping me awake, as the biting aroma it carries. In a narrow lane at the edge of Ballstad’s harbour, a macabre scene reveals the source of the scent: rows of fish, heads removed, swing uneasily in the breeze.

These fish are skrei, which translates as “wanderer cod”. They are at the end of an epic journey that began hundreds of miles to the north in the Barents sea, the body of water that separates Europe’s northernmost reaches from the polar ice cap. They have returned to their birthplace in the icy waters surrounding Norway’s remote and starkly beautiful Lofoten islands to spawn. All the hard swimming on the homeward leg has given them a firm texture and distinctive taste that is increasingly prized by high-end chefs, fishmongers, and retailers.

I can’t wait to see what all the fuss is about, but first, I have to catch some.

A short time later, we slide out across the glassy calm of the Vestfjord aboard the fishing boat Junior. Her captain, Børge Iversen, was born and raised locally and has fished here for most of his life. He works all the time and often alone, but thrives on the sense of freedom that Junior provides.

The sonar soon spots a large shoal of cod 60 metres down. We drop hooks baited with peeled shrimp, and wait for the skrei to bite.

An aromatic incentive

These days, the cod industry in this part of Norway is booming. Fisheries are championed as benchmarks of sustainable fishing. But the industry has had its fair share of challenges.

In the 1980s, over-exploitation in the Barents Sea caused the skrei stocks to crash. Large fish were such a rarity that a local newspaper, The Loftoposten, started giving out a kilogram of coffee to any fisher who caught a skrei weighing over 30kg. These kaffetorsk, or coffee cod, were rare when the promotion started. Nowadays, at least one is caught every week and records show that the paper is giving out more coffee than ever. It’s hardly a scientific measure of stock recovery but it does mirror Børge’s experience over his 42 years of fishing skrei .

“There are more fish now than when I was little, and this is because we have managed the fishing properly,” says Børge. “We could actually take more fish; the cod population here is viable”.

Coming together for a sustainable future

As Børge reels in his lines, it’s clear that today’s haul has been a good one. Many of the skrei we land weigh more than 10 kilograms. Some are twice as heavy.

The entire fleet of Lofoten cod fishers worked together to secure MSC certification in 2011. To meet the requirements, they modified their fishing gear and introduced a minimum catch size of 60 cm, allowing smaller fish to grow and reproduce. Rigorous efforts were also made to prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, an issue that has now been successfully eradicated.

Since the fishery’s certification, awareness of sustainability has also risen globally among consumers helping the skrei business to flourish.

Image © MSC

Image © Eric Fokke; Lofotenbilder

Young entrepreneurs

Back at the dock, local children scramble towards us, knifes in hand. True to the Lofoten spirit of wasting nothing, they deftly remove the tongues from the freshly landed skrei. These torsketunge are a local delicacy, usually fried in flour and duck fat, and fetch a premium price in Lofoten restaurants. The proprietor of the local Nusfjord fishing village tells me that it is a rite of passage for many Lofoten children. She herself worked on the docks and saved up enough to buy her first boat. These days, she says, some youngsters earn up to 100,000 krone (USD $12,000) during their school holidays, enough for a deposit on a house.

The world’s best traceability system

Much of the region’s skrei is landed in the village of Stamsund on the island of Vestvågøy. As well as being an important fishing base, the village is home to Norway Seafoods, an MSC-certified seafood processor and supplier. The company processes 50-70 tons of locally caught cod, saithe and haddock each day, with 80% of their products sourced from MSC certified fisheries. The fish is clearly marked and separated to comply with the MSC’s traceability standard. Purchasing manager Paul Hauan shows me how things work, producing meticulous lists of the different catches, and the boats that supplies them.

"It is the best traceability system in the world. The MSC can trace products all the way along the supply chain."

Paul Hauan

As we leave Lofoten, I’m struck by how important skrei is to this community’s lives, culture and cuisine. Without it, Lofoten would not be the same. Protecting this fishery’s sustainability is about so much more than fish stocks. It’s about ensuring a community’s way of life can continue to thrive long into the future.

MSC ambassador and chef Bart van Olphen shows us what you can do with skrei, "Norway's best kept secret"

All images © Ulf Berglund unless otherwise stated.

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