An eye to international markets

1. From the Arctic to the Equator: Nigerian merchant in a stockfish loft in Bergen in the 1950s. Photo: Norwegian Fisheries Museum.
1. From the Arctic to the Equator: Nigerian merchant in a stockfish loft in Bergen in the 1950s. Photo: Norwegian Fisheries Museum.
2. Photo : Stavanger og omegns industri.
2. Photo : Stavanger og omegns industri.

In a European perspective Norway became the big country with the small population, a description that still applies today. The country has fewer than five million inhabitants in an area of 325,000 square kilometres, excluding Svalbard. In comparison, Germany has a population of 82 million and an area of 350,000 square kilometres. This means that throughout recent history Norway has had much greater access to natural resources such as fish, timber and certain minerals and ores than it could use itself. That fact in turn has resulted in massive international trade per capita during the entire period 1600–2000.

It is particularly notable that fish, seasonally caught near the beach by smallholders, their sons, hired men, and crofters, after first being processed into various products such as salted and fresh herring and other fish, stockfish (dried fish), klipfish (split, boned, dried, and salted cod), cod liver oil, cod roe, herring oil, herring meal, sprats and kippers, ended up in the marketplaces of Sweden, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the West Indies, North and South America, Nigeria, and not least Great Britain with its Dominions on four continents.

Processing was carried out partly in simple ways near the fishing grounds (stockfish, salted fish, iced fresh herring) and partly in more complex ways (klipfish). After 1880 portions of the catch also underwent industrial processing in canneries, cod liver oil and herring oil refineries, and – from 1950 – also filleting factories. Operations were spread over several thousand fishery works, salteries, and factories. Canneries alone numbered over 220 in the interwar period, and there were more than 70 herring oil refineries in the 1950s.

Hundreds of boat building and repair workshops, engine factories, equipment factories, packaging producers (barrels, crates, and tinplate cans), and additional supporting industries delivered materials to fishermen and processors. These small firms, along with ship chandlers and general stores, were scattered among all coastal towns and bordering hinterlands as well as along the connecting transport routes. In much of the processing work women played a vital role. They salted herring and other fish, carried out most of the work involved in the preparation of klipfish, dominated the often large number of employees in the canneries, and were indispensable in the filleting factories.

Women had the necessary dexterity and their casual relationship to employment outside the home facilitated the operational flexibility that processing required given the seasonality of the fisheries. Frozen storage of raw fish was not common until after the Second World War. With nearly 90,000 fishermen in 1900 and 120,000 in 1939 the Norwegian fishing industry was among Europe’s largest.

Since the other great fishing nations consumed most of their catch themselves, the quantity of Norwegian exported seafood was probably the greatest in Europe, if not the world. Norway used only about a tenth of its commercial catch; likewise it used only a small fraction of its forestry products. The country’s location in the far north of Europe was a precondition for the large catches of fish. However, this created problems for export since the journeys to the large and profitable markets of western Europe and America were very long.

Before the establishment of refrigeration facilities, it was difficult to provide the consumer with fresh fish. Such a product would have given the fishermen a much better price than the traditional stockfish, klipfish, or salted herring. Another problem was that the dispersed and decentralized structure of catching activities resulted in the processing, and therefore export, being spread among a large number of independent businesses.

Individually these were small in relation to the distance to and, not least, the size of many of the markets served. This situation weakened the bargaining power of the Norwegian suppliers to the advantage of the big buyers abroad. Picture 1: “From the Arctic to the Equator”: Nigerian merchant in a stockfish loft in Bergen in the 1950s. Photo: Norwegian Fisheries Museum.

Picture 2: Chr. Bjelland & Co.’s sardine factory no. 2 in Stavanger and its workforce, ca. 1900. The Norwegian sardine production began in this town in 1879, and in the interwar years there were 60–70 sardine factories here. Tinned fish was at that time one of the fishing industry’s products that yielded the highest export value.
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