Every year the North Atlantic cod, or skrei, leaves its normal habitat in the Barents Sea and swims about 1000 kilometres southwards to the Lofoten region to spawn. This natural phenomenon has throughout history been the most important reason to live in the Lofoten islands. When the cod comes to Lofoten in the period from January to March it is time for the great Lofoten fishery.
The fish spawn in great numbers close to land and therefore it has been possible for people to catch the fish with small boats and simple tools for thousands of years. In Lofoten we have found traces of fishermen from about 10.000 years ago. We have reason to believe that the Vikings in the Lofoten area were good fishermen and that they also dried the cod for preservation and could bring the stockfish on their journeys. In our Medieval period, in the 1100s, we know for sure that the cod was caught and dried in such large quantities that it was not only food for the locals, but a commodity. The commercial trade with stockfish had begun.
Ever since the stockfish trade have been of great importance both locally and nationally in Norway. The trade has taken different forms and routes throughout the centuries, but it has always been one of the major export articles from Norway. For some periods of time it was up to 80 % of the total annual Norwegian export.
An interesting characteristic of the Lofoten fishery is that it has been a very conservative system. The catch has been performed in small boats, traditionally not far from land. The fishermen have used the handline for centuries and the conservation method still preferred is to let the cod dry naturally in the Lofoten wind.
In earlier times the fishery was naturally sustainable. The fishermen with traditional handlines, even though they were numerous, were not able to overfish. There was enough for everybody. And of course, no use of gas, engines or plastic materials. Today we have more efficient fishing methods like automated longlines and nets and the fishing can be intensive. We now have strict quotas based on research to ensure that the skrei can come back to our coasts year after year.