Changes in the Resource Base and Adaptive Ability

Photo: Norwegian Fisheries Museum.
Photo: Norwegian Fisheries Museum.

From nature’s side the resource base has changed little since historic times. Coast-dwellers have thus lived under relatively stable conditions, largely determined by the sea and the landscape. In a shorter time frame, however, powerful fluctuations – both naturally caused and created by man – have demanded an ability to adapt and adjust. All fisheries are subject to variations in catch from year to year, as is the case with all of nature’s bounties.

Even so, historically speaking, the changes within the herring fishery have been particularly dramatic. While the cod fishery can vary significantly from one year to the next as regards both quantity and geographic distribution, the herring fishery can go from occupying large numbers of a local community or region one year to disappearing completely the next.

Thus it was that the spring herring was absent from the Norwegian coast between 1784 and 1808, and round 1870 a 60-year herring boom stopped abruptly– again for a couple of decades. That is why one talks of herring periods, interrupted by years of scarcity. In these early periods the reasons for variations must have been biological or oceanographic factors outside human control.

By contrast, overfishing was a major reason why both the herring population collapsed and other pelagic fish species were threatened with extinction in the years 1955–80/90. The breeding stock of Norwegian springbreeding herring was reduced from 13.5 million tonnes in 1955 to less than 10,000 in 1975!

The collapse was made possible by – seen in isolation – an impressive will to adapt and improve the efficiency of the herring fishing fleet. The more effective fishing techniques, combined with a growing world market and researchers’ inadequate understanding of the sea’s biological-oceanographic mechanisms, provoked the collapse. Similar mechanisms were responsible for the breakdown of pelagic whaling in the 1950s.

Picture: "The sea’s silver". Big throw of winter herring on the Western Norwegian coast in the 1950s. The purse seine is fastened to the purse boats and is hauled up ("dried") by hand into the two open boats in order to scoop the herring into the main vessel. The two other fishing smacks have been summoned by radio to take in whatever of the catch can not fit into the purse boat’s hold.
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