The Herring Girls

WalkingLab has been living in Ólafsfjörður, one of Iceland’s oldest fishing villages (the ‘industry’ is only 100 years old). The neighbouring village to the north-west, Siglufjörður, was once the second largest fishing port in all of Iceland.

WalkingLab spent time doing walking-research in what is now commonly called Siglo to understand the impact of the collapse of the herring industry on these northern fishing villages and the roll of women in the fishing industry. This walking research was important, because of the importance and impact fishing has on the local community. In order to understand the changing landscape and the place where we are living and walking for a month, we needed to know more about how fish are central to peoples lives in this part of Iceland. To do this walking research we spent time walking and talking with local residents and we visited the Herring Museum.

One of the places we visited was a building that formerly housed ‘The Herring Girls’ – young women who migrated from Norway and other places in Iceland to work in the fishing industry. The Herring Girls were gutters, cleaners, and salters who worked long hours on the docks when fishing boats arrived from shoals in the Greenland Sea.

The house we visited today would have had close to 50 girls living there during the summer season. The girls worked long hours because there was limited time in which herring was required to be salted. All of the work took place outside during the bright nights of the Icelandic summer. The Herring Girls were paid by output and so the quickest girls could actually make more money than some of the men who did different jobs on the dock.

The herring boom was in the 1940s, but by 1967 the herring had become nearly extinct in these waters.

The current town, which supports a few jetties and fewer than 30 boats, at once supported over 100 fishing companies, and on average 500 boats docked during the season.

We possibly passed 20 other tourists and 20 locals today, but in the hight of the fishing industry 1200 people could have been found on the docks working in long assembly lines of fish production.