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Icelandic cod: carrying the torch for sustainable seafood at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text by Jo Miller, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Photos by iLCP Fellow James Morgan

Pall Hreinn Polsson, fisherman with Visir, Iceland.
Páll Hreinn Pálsson, a fishermen with Vísir, Iceland, holds a cod on one of Iceland’s historic lava fields

The Olympic and Paralympic Games present a great opportunity to forge positive links between sport and the environment. This year, as part of a commitment to sustainability, 100% of the cod served to athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Village comes from Visir, a family-run fishing business in Grindavik, south west Iceland.

Iceland’s people have harnessed the power of this volcanic land and the bounty of its sea to create a wonderful place for both people and nature.

In April, I visited the fishing community catching and processing cod for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and to learn about their journey to secure a sustainable future for their fisheries. Their efforts mean that Icelandic cod can be sold with the blue MSC label – their ticket to Rio 2016.

Pall Hreinn Polsson, fisherman with Visir, Iceland.
Páll Hreinn Pálsson on board Vísir’s boat, the Jóhanna Gísladóttir

Icelandic fishermen have been supplying cod to South America and Europe for generations. Fish even features on their coins, recognition of the deep history of fishing in Iceland and the importance to its economy.

Icelandic Krona held in gloves with fish scales.
Icelandic krona depict the country’s important marine life. These coins show cod and capelin – both are fished sustainably by MSC certified fishermen

There’s a common saying in Iceland, “Lífið er saltfiskur” or “Life is salted fish.” Today salted fish accounts for 15-20% of the value of seafood exports from Iceland. Salted cod also has deep cultural roots in Brazil. Cod, particularly “bacalhau” (salted cod) is a traditional festive dish in Brazil. It is eaten at Christmas and during family gatherings, often in a stew with potatoes, or as “bolinhos de bacalhau” (croquettes of salted cod), which will be served at Rio 2016.

Processing salted cod (Bacalao) at Visir, Grindavik, Iceland.
Fresh cod is coated/cured in salt as part of the process of making bacalhau, salted fish popular in Mediterranean countries and Brazil
Salted Cod (Bacalao)
Salted cod (bacalhau)

For the Visir family, fishing is more than a job. It’s a tradition which goes back generations. They’ve built on the sacrifices and lessons of the past to transform themselves into a thoroughly modern businesses.

Visir’s general manager, Pétur Hafsteinn Pálsson, told me how the company was founded as a legacy to his grandfather, Pall Jónsson. Pall and his brother were lost at sea during the Second World War whilst shipping cod to the allied troops in Britain. Whilst the safety of Icelandic fishermen has now improved, the wrecked carcasses of fishing boats line Iceland’s coast as a reminder of the power of the sea.

Petur Hafsteinn Palsson, General Manager and Co-Owner of Visir, telling the story of his family company.
Pétur Hafsteinn Pálsson, general manager of Vísir, tells the story about his grandfather who was lost at sea during World War II
Rusting fishing boat, Grindavík.
Abandoned fishing boats are a reminder of the power of the sea. Many line the coast in Grindavík, south west Iceland

Icelandic fishermen have also experienced the impacts of over exploiting the oceans. In the 1960s herring stocks collapsed leading to high unemployment.

The Icelandic government now follows scientific advice, setting catch quotas based on surveys carried out by the Marine Research Institute. We met two of their researchers weighing and measuring Visir’s catch to determine the health of the stock.

Scientists from the Marine Research Institute.
Scientists, Díana Guðmundsdóttir and Sigrún Jóhannsdóttir, from the Marine Research Institute measure and weigh samples of the day’s catch

Visir’s fishermen are happy to follow the advice of the scientists because they know that it will secure their livelihoods for themselves and generations to come. Thanks to careful management, they now catch more, larger fish in less time, leading to greater efficiencies and lower fuel consumption.

Captain of The Johanna Gisladottir
Ólafur Óskarsson, captain of the Jóhanna Gísladóttir, Vísir’s largest boat
The Johanna Gisladottir
The Jóhanna Gísladóttir returns to Grindavík harbour after four days at sea

Data from the fishing vessels feeds directly back to Visir’s processing facility which turns out 500 portions of fish every minute. It’s incredible to see the lines of staff carefully trimming and packing portions of fish. The speed of turn-around and the careful planning means that fresh fish is on its way to markets in Europe in less than 24 hours of arriving on land.

Trimming line at the Visir fresh and frozen processing facility.
Trimming line at the Visir fresh and frozen processing facility.

The fish is sold with tracking information linking it back to the boat and day on which it was caught. It’s sold around the world with the blue MSC label – a mark which shows the sustainability and integrity of the fishery from which it came.

Sigridur Olafsdottir, Superviser of Fresh and Frozen at Visir.
Sigríður Ólafsdóttir, supervisor of fresh and frozen processing at Vísir

To achieve and maintain MSC certification Icelandic cod fisheries are independently assessed to globally recognized standards for sustainable fishing. This includes ensuring that fish stocks remain healthy, minimizing their impact on the marine environment and ensuring careful management systems are in place to ensure fish for the future.

You too can ‘eat like an Olympian’ by looking for seafood with the blue MSC label. That way you can be sure that the seafood you eat today comes from a fishery which is protecting the oceans for tomorrow.

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Read the full story about Iceland’s Olympic effort in sustainable fishing here.

Learn more about sustainable fishing at msc.org.

See more of James Morgan imagery and work on his website.

Support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers by donating at this link.