I drove over to Suðureyri, about 20 km southwest of Ísafjörður, yesterday to visit the ISLANDSSAGA, (or Icelandic Saga), fish processing plant. Suðureyri is a small town with a population of about 320 people, 70 of whom are employed ISLANDSSAGA. The presence of the plant in Suðureyri is thus significant to the life of the community, and my interest in writing about it stems as much for this as it does the sort of visual interest of the plant and the town.
There seems to be an abundance of stories of about the quota system in Iceland gone wrong, stories about quota owners selling out to large corporations, leaving villages with little or no commercial enterprise to support to the community. Here, in Suðureyri, one finds a very different kind of story. The owners of ISLANDSSAGA, Óðinn Gesttson and Guðni Einarsson, both grew up in Suðureyri. Both come from families of fishermen and women, and in 1999 they founded ISLANDSSAGA buying the fish processing plant that has been in Suðureyri since 1972. Their commitment to the well being of the community is obvious and adminrable in the pride that they for their plant and their employees.
When I arrive at the plant and enter Óðinn´s office, he is busy looking at a computer screen filled with what looks like the current selling statistics from the NY Stock Exchange accompanied by a large dial, a sort of compass wheel the middle of which displays numbers that change with each tick of the clock. When I ask Óðdinn what this is, he explains that he is buying fish from the auction that operates daily from about 1:00 to 2:30 in the afternoon. The computer system indicates what type of fish and how much is available, where it is located, and the current price per ton.
It seems curious to me that the plant should be buying fish from auction, afterall the company does own its own 600 tonnes of qouta. Óðinn explains that the season for catching haddock and cod, its primary fishes, in the Westfjords extends from June until the end of the year. During the rest of the year, they buy through auction from other places around Iceland where the fish can be found, sometimes further from shore, sometimes in the north or south of the country. Doing so keeps the plant operating year round, and consequently provides consistent employment to people in the community.
ISLANDSSAGA, Óðinn explains, could be classified as a mid-sized operation. The company owns three boats, which go to sea out for 12 to 18 hour trips. They employ long line and jig methods of catching fish, methods that have been used for many years. The long line method uses lines of about 500 hooks which are baited and then rigged in place in the sea; each boat will place about 24 to 30 lines, or about 15,000 hooks in the water at a time. The jigging method uses unbaited hooks, which (I may have this wrong) are used to snag fish in large schools. While the methods employed do not provide the large catches that a trawler might haul in, they are more environmentally friendly. When the fish are brought on board, they are bled and then placed on ice and brought into harbor for cleaning and preparation.
I am given a tour of the plany by Oddny, a young woman from Suðureyri who has worked for the plant for several years and is now the quality control manager. The plant is organized in such a way , she tells me, that processing the fish proceeds in a single direction from one end to the other. The fish are brought into the plant in boxes by fork lift at the north end of the facility. In the first room, their heads are removed, and they are gutted and separated by size. They move by a sort of covenyor belt into the next room where two people are working , each on a different size or type of fish. Here the loins are separated from the backbone of the fish. From there the loins proceed to the next room, where about 20 people are working on a production line removing bones and waste material from the loins, in effect the final preparation before packaging. Another six or seven people are working on packaging the fish, placing it in boxes, labeling, and sorting. From this room the product is either moved for delivery or frozen, with the freezer being the most southerly room in the building. Via this process the plant can prepare between 15,000 and 20,000 lbs of fish each day.
ISLANDSSAGA processes three types of fish primarily. Their largest product is haddock, which is about 67% of their total yield. Fresh and frozen haddock is distributed to a variety of locations around the world, and much of it goes to the USA, which is the world‘s largest consumer of frozen haddock. About 25% of their product is cod, and the remaining 8% is what they call catfish, or what in the USA is referred to as wolf fish, a grey beast with large teeth. With the exception of the guts, all parts of the fish are used. Good pieces of loin that are too small to package get crushed and used for things like fish cakes or fiskibollur; the heads and backbones are dried and sold in Nigeria. The skin as well is dried and sold.
After the tour, I speak with Óðinn for a while longer about the town of Suðureyri and fishing in the village. He shows me some very interesting statistics. Before 1900 the town had a population of only about 16 people, two families in effect. In 1906 the first motor boat came and within five years the population grew to 200. The population peaked at 500 around 1980. "This is because the stern trawlers came and every town had to have its stern trawler." That was a mistake, he points out, because before long the stocks were depleted. He points to the numbers, which remained relatively stable between 200 and 300 between the early 1900s and 1980 and then returned there afterwards, and says, "We should have stayed with the old way. We had it right then, and now."
Óðinn explains to me some of the various ways that he and his partner are trying to work with the community and with other companies to provide for a sustainable industry and population. He tells me that ISLANDSSAGA provides fish to the day care for free lunchs. "It is comparatively little fish, about 15 kilos a week, and it helps the young people to think well of us." In the summers, the company has a work program for teenagers, who earn money and learn about the industry. "Some of these young people will stay with us." Additionally, ISLANDSSAGA cooperates with other companies in the Westfjords to support Klofningur, the drying plant located just beyond town. And similarly, the company cooperates with the local sport fishing operation, which brings about 1500 tourists from northern Europe into Suðureyri annually.