The Story of a Company in the East Fjords
In the late 19th century Norwegian fishermen came to the Eastfjords to fish for herring and their Icelandic counterparts learned about the “silver of the sea”. Icelandic herring fishery thus grew steadily and soon Icelanders started to sell the salted fish at high prices abroad. At the same time the herring fishery was widely expanded in the Eastfjords. The fish was later salted in the fjords and was later sold especially to markets in southern Europe.
Herring fishery and salting changed people’s attitude towards fishery in Iceland. More and more people concluded that fisheries should be developed into an independent profession.
Society Built on Fish
The growing emphasis on fisheries also changed society in the East fjords. Small fishing villages emerged between the mountainous fjords, settlers built their living mainly on fishing and work in the fishing industry, with some additional farming. The stories of the villages are to a high degree marked by economic ups and downs – sometimes fishing was successful, and sometimes not. Prices on the fish market were inconsistent and the development of fishing itself and the adjoined work influenced daily life.
Most of the ups and downs were determined by the herring itself: during the golden herring era its number steadily increased, but then the fish disappeared almost without warning. “Herring comes and herring goes” is a saying in the fjords.
Neskaupstaður – A Powerful Fishing Town
By the end of the 19th century a village arose in the Nordfjörður fjord. The fjord was convenient for setting sail, and so the number of boats increased, and a lot of manpower was needed to process the catch.
In the year 1929 around 1100 people lived in the village. It was entitled with market rights, therefore being an independent municipality named Neskaupstaður.
In 1952 a new herring era started in the East fjords, leading into a “herring bonanza”. Right from the start the fish was salted in Neskaupstaður, but facilities for fishmeal and fish oil would turn the town into a genuine herring town. In 1957 a public holding company was founded in order to build these facilities. “Síldarvinnnslan” was presided by a few people, whereas the fishermen’s cooperation held the majority of the shares, or 60%. According to their ideal Síldarvinnslan should grow and prosper and become Iceland’s leading fishing company.
In 1958 Síldarvinnslan erected a plant for fishmeal and fish oil and processed a total of 4000 tons of herring. However, the following years provided extremely good catches and in 1966 107.000 tons of herring passed the production lines. The activity of these plants laid the foundation to the powerful company of the coming years.
Diversity of Production
Síldarvinnslan’s owners did not settle with the fishmeal and oil production. In 1965 two herring ships were added to the company, two years later four ships set sail for Síldarvinnslan. In the same year the company started by salting and freezing fish. Working in the company diversified increasingly. When the herring again disappeared, it was about time to develop new fields of activity in pelagic fishery, especially for capelin. The company decided to sell the herring boats and invest in modern trawlers suitable for capelin fishing. With the new ships pelagic catch grew significantly. It was filleted and frozen or salted, but Capelin suited also well in the processing of fishmeal and oil.
The drama of 1974
On 20th of December 1974 a disaster hit Neskaupstaðir and Síldavinnslan. Two avalanches came down the mountain, destroying the fishmeal plant and damaged the cooling houres and other facilities. Twelve men lost their lives, among them were seven workers from Síldarvinnslan. The rebuilding started immediately after the rescue operations had been finished. In the beginning the catch was merely salted, but soon work in the destroyed plants could continue as the cooling house was fixed and a new plant for fish meal and oil was raised at the new Nordfjörður harbour. It resumed operations in February 1976.
Síldarvinnslan is one of the most powerful fishing companies in Iceland. The company runs a fully equipped fish processing plant in Neskaupstaðir and fishmeal and oil productions in Neskaupstaðir, Helguvík and Seyðisfjörður. It also operates five ships – three for deep-sea fishery, one trawler and one ice-trawler.
The story of Neskaupstaðir and Síldarvinnslan is inextricably linked with each other. It is the saga of a little fisherman’s village that from 19th century on developed into an industrious fishing town on highest technological standard. From the beginning Síldarvinnslan had been the motor of this development and with reason it may be stated that the ideal of its founders entirely have become real.
Text: Smári Gestsson