The History of Icelandic Herring Fishing: From Riches to Decline

The History of Icelandic Herring Fishing: From Riches to Decline

Exploring the Rise and Fall of Icelandic Herring Fishing Industry

Fishing holds a significant place in the history and cultural heritage of Iceland. From the time of its earliest settlements, Icelandic fishermen have ventured out into the seas to bring back their catch. 

Fish has long served as a crucial source of sustenance, and has even played a pivotal role in laying the foundation of Iceland's economy. The Icelandic culture places great emphasis on respecting the ocean and its offerings, and responsible management of marine resources is considered to be of utmost importance to the nation. 

In essence, the relationship between Iceland and the sea is one that is deeply rooted in tradition and reverence.

The relationship between Iceland and the Sea

1867 - 1903 

The arrival of Norwegians in the latter half of the 19th century marked the beginning of a significant shift in Iceland's fisheries. However, the harsh realities of pack ice, cold winters, and economic hardship brought a premature end to the fledgling herring industry by 1883. 

The Herring Era Museum


By 1903, the Norwegians returned to Icelandic waters, establishing new herring towns and offering employment opportunities to hundreds of Icelanders in herring processing.

1904 - 1916

The Icelanders didn't passively observe the changes in the herring industry, but actively participated and gradually took control of fishing and sales operations. This led to a decline in Norwegian dominance, which had once seemed insurmountable. 

Kristfinnur Guðjónsson, The Herring Era Museum

By 1916, the number of barrels processed by Icelanders had surpassed those processed by Norwegians, marking a significant milestone in the industry's evolution.

Iceland's initial herring processing plant was established in Siglufjörður in 1911, and it was quickly succeeded by larger and better-equipped facilities in all of the country's primary herring ports.


Haukur Helgason

Salted herring emerged as a critical food source for numerous European nations, especially during the challenging times of the two World Wars. 

The herring industry played a crucial role in Iceland's economic independence during the Great Depression of the 1930. With overseas cod markets closed, successful herring seasons provided a reliable source of income that likely contributed to the country's ability to achieve freedom from Danish domination in 1944, after five centuries of subjugation.


The instability of marine resources is well known, and herring is no exception. Following a period of depressed catch figures in the 1950, herring stocks began to be heavily fished, thanks to a new and more efficient fishing technology developed in Iceland.


In 1969, the herring stock failed to materialize, marking the end of the once-great Norwegian-Icelandic herring industry. The largest fishing nations at the time, including Norway, Iceland, and Russia, bear the responsibility for over-exploiting the herring stock. 


The disappearance of herring dealt a severe blow to Iceland's herring towns, as well as the country's entire economic and employment sectors. In the late 1960, herring made up as much as half of Iceland's export income and was a vital component of the country's rapid economic growth. 

This marked the end of the great herring adventure.

The great herring adventure

The herring catch was such a vital asset that it made up an astonishing 25% of Iceland's total export earnings for many years, and the figure sometimes even climbed even higher than 40%. 

The events surrounding the herring fisheries were akin to an adventure for the Icelandic nation - a great herring adventure that spanned an entire century.