Marine adaptation in town and country

Taking a breather during the drying of klipfish at Jofjøra on the island of Giske in the 1940s.   Photo: FylkesFOTOArkivet i M&R, Arnhild Sæther.
Taking a breather during the drying of klipfish at Jofjøra on the island of Giske in the 1940s. Photo: FylkesFOTOArkivet i M&R, Arnhild Sæther.

Up till the interwar years the majority of Norwegian fishermen lived on farms – that is, they were fishermen-farmers. On the fisherman’s farm it was the wife who had the main responsibility for operations while the husband was away. She was helped by children and the elderly, and could also do some fishing herself for home use. The women contributed to fitting out the fisherman-farmer by producing suitable food, clothes, and to some extent equipment.

In districts near to good fishing grounds it was common for the men to also take part in other fisheries in addition to the great seasonal fishery, whether that be skrei-cod in Lofoten or spring herring in Western Norway (Vestlandet). This division of labour provided an efficient use of the household labour force in scarce economic circumstances.

With the exception of Ålesund and a number of fishing villages and small towns in Finnmark, the Norwegian fisheries industry was based in scattered rural settlements. By contrast, in countries such as Great Britain, Germany, France, and even Denmark, most fishermen lived in towns and villages. However, packing of fish for export, as well as a good deal of processing, took place either in or near to coastal towns. Between 1850 and 1950 nearly all Norwegian towns west of Lindesnes, the country’s southernmost point, were based on the processing and export of fish and/or on shipping and shipbuilding.

East of Lindesnes forestry and timber production played the same role as fishing and hunting in the west and north: the forest was largely owned by the bigger farmers, and tree felling and log floating were carried out by members of the farming community in winter and spring. However, along the Skagerrak during the 19th century persons’ multiple occupations became much more diverse. Many from these coastal regions were involved in the new driftnet fishing for mackerel from the 1830s. The larger catches – first mackerel and then herring in the last part of the century – were exported as fresh fish to England as well as to the growing population of workers in the eastern coastal towns.

As the railway network expanded it also became possible to reach inland areas of Eastern Norway (Østlandet) with fresh fish. The combination of concentrated settlement and improved infrastructure created a home market that was unequalled in the rest of the country except around Bergen and provided the living for a number of year-round fishermen in the Skagerrak/Oslofjord area around the turn of the century. In Eastern Norway, particularly along the coast of Telemark around Larvik and in the villages around the innermost part of Oslofjord north of Moss, natural ice was also an important export item from the mid 19th century. At its height, just before 1900, the yearly export of natural ice from this area exceeded 500,000 tonnes. Norway thus completely dominated the market for natural ice in western and northern Europe.

This trade provided the foundation for multiple occupations also in the coastal districts east of the dividing mountain range, which, as with the combination of farming and fishing in other parts of the country, made it possible to sustain far more people than farming alone could have managed. Marine resources and forestry, production of natural ice, and other primarily coastal industries such as mining and quarrying can be considered as special cases of another important side of Norway’s traditional rural economic culture that distinguish it from the agricultural practices of almost every other country in Europe, namely the use of low-productive outlying areas. Such land had a large and increasing significance for farm activities, and around 1800 constituted a large reservoir of resources.

In Norway agricultural land amounted to a modest 2–3 per cent of the country’s total territory, a markedly smaller proportion of arable land than found in other European countries. Although much of the rest – the high mountains, glaciers, and lakes – was truly barren, there were still large areas of both open countryside and wide-stretching forests that could support summer pasturage for domestic animals and the foraging of additional fodder such as wood shavings, twigs, leaves, and lichens as well as give opportunities for hunting and freshwater fishing.

The economic exploitation of outlying areas together with the combined occupation of fishing-farming paved the way for an explosive growth of the Norwegian rural population in the years 1814–70, which occurred without the transition to more modern ways of economic management and without a decrease in the standard of living. In Europe, only Ireland had a greater increase in population after 1814, but there it ended in catastrophe with the great potato famine in 1845–49 and a resultant fall in the population of several million.

In Norway between 1814 and 1870, the abundant shoals of spring herring that invaded the western coastal waters played an important part in the population growth just mentioned. In the best years, the catch was up to a million barrels. Herring money rained down on the region’s farming communities, hastening the transition to a monetary economy and resulting also in strong urban growth: Stavanger multiplied its population many times over in these years; Bergen received a boost, and whole new communities sprang up, such as Kopervik, Skudeneshavn, Haugesund, Florø, and Ålesund.
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