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Norway’s Fisheries: Healthy, Productive & Sustainable

With its 2,200 kilometre-long coastline, hundreds of clear, deep fjords, and nutrient-rich ocean waters fed by the Gulf Stream, it’s only natural that Norway defines itself as a seafood nation. Terje E. Martinussen, Managing Director of the Norwegian Seafood Export...
Norway’s seafood tradition has only grown stronger over the centuries, now augmented by the tremendous success of the country’s aquaculture industry, one of the largest in the world. Currently, 228 different types of Norwegian fish and seafood products are exported to more than 150 countries across the globe, with a total value in 2007 of NOK 37 billion. In fact, Norway is the second largest seafood exporter in the world, after China, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
The creation of this enormous industry has taken deliberate and careful efforts to protect the oceans, fish stocks, and near shore aquaculture habitats that form the very foundation of the industry’s sustainability. But that’s not the only secret to Norway’s success. A unique cooperative effort among industry, government, non-governmental organizations and research institutes has created a regulatory, research and information network that tracks Norwegian fish from fjord to fork – guaranteeing that Norwegian fish and seafood are sustainably produced, healthy and humanely treated, and that they are safe and nutritious to eat.

Protecting the Environment

If you had to guess which fish represented Norway’s largest export by weight, you’d probably guess farmed Atlantic salmon – and you wouldn’t be far wrong. In just 30 years, Norway has built an aquaculture industry that in 2007 produced 706,000 tonnes of fish, worth a record-setting NOK 17.5 billion. But another surprising heavyweight, when it comes to export, is the humble herring. More than 350,000 tonnes of spring spawning Norwegian herring were exported across the globe in 2007, with markets as far flung as Poland, Japan and Nigeria.

Norway’s export markets extend to more than 150 countries. Dried cod is particularly popular in Portugal and Spain.
© Bengt Wilson

Herring was so abundant, the Export Council’s Martinussen says, that fishermen called them “the silver of the sea”. It wasn’t just the silvery shine of the fish as they filled Norwegian fishermen’s nets, but the fact that herring were an unfailing source of income. However, in the early 1970s, after fishermen adopted a new netting system, herring numbers dropped precipitously – and then crashed. For many nations, this would be a disaster – and indeed, it was a difficult time for Norwegian fishermen.
But the Norwegian Government responded immediately, enacting first an outright ban on herring fishing, and then tough regulations to protect and rebuild herring stocks. As a result, the herring population has fully recovered – but Norway learned a valuable lesson, Martinussen says. “We had the experience that if we are too tough on nature, it can’t repair itself,” he says. “We learned that we had technology that was so powerful it could damage the resources. But then we proved that if we introduce the right mechanisms, we can rebuild depleted fish stocks.”

Strong Regulation, Healthy Environment

These days, both wild fisheries and aquaculture are tightly regulated to protect population health and the environment. The Directorate of Fisheries, a branch of the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, regulates everything from mesh sizes for nets to protecting areas where juvenile fish spawn. The Norwegian Government also works in cooperation with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, or ICES, an intergovernmental body composed of 20 countries, including Norway, which coordinates and promotes marine research in the North Atlantic for management purposes.
The Bergen-based Institute for Marine Research (IMR) is the main Norwegian research advisory body to the Directorate of Fisheries. It is the IMR, for example, that is mapping and conducting research on Norway’s unusual cold-water coral reefs, some of which are protected by the Norwegian Government because of their biological significance and because of their importance as a nursery area for many species of economically important fish.
In fact, marine and aquaculture research is highly valued in Norway, with more than NOK 800 million spent by the Government and industry on research in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. This investment pays off by developing a strong knowledge base for sound and sustainable fisheries management – the best in the world, according to a University of British Columbia study from 2007, which evaluated the policies and fisheries management for 53 coastal nations, including Norway, and found the Norwegian management system to be unsurpassed.

A good example of this management-linked research is a multifaceted consortium funded by the Norwegian Research Council in 2006, called CREATE, the Centre for Research-based Innovation in Aquaculture Technology. CREATE is being hosted by SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, with a budget of NOK 160 million over eight years and a range of partners, including NTNUthe Institute of Marine Research in Bergenthe Nofima groupAKVA group, Helgeland Plast, Egersund Net and Erling Haug. The group has an ambitious 10-part research agenda: the reduction of escapes and nutrient pollution; fish welfare; monitoring and control of water quality; sea loads; reduction and control of fouling; handling net cages; feeding systems; sorting and handling live fish; control and optimizing of production; and traceability.

Click on the company names to read their profile at Nortrade:
– SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture
– The Norwegian Research Council
– AKVA Group
– The Institute for Marine Research
“The Norwegian fishery is based on the principle of sustainable management,” Helga Pedersen, Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, told the Norwegian Seafood Federation in early April, 2008. “That means that we listen to marine researchers and have implemented initiatives to build up populations that researchers have found to be threatened.” Another key aspect of the Norwegian approach, Pedersen says, is that the Ministry keeps close tabs on the results of different management policies, and can act quickly to create tougher regulations if needed.

Aquaculture in Focus

The Directorate of Fisheries also exercises stringent regulation of fish farming, with controls on everything from fish farm locations to fish farm operations. Fish health and welfare is also a key issue, with regulations governing the number of fish permitted in each cage, to humane and safe handling of fish for slaughter.
A key focus in recent years has been controlling the environmental impact of farmed salmon that escape. These farmed fish can interbreed with and dilute wild stocks, and contribute to the spread of salmon lice in wild fish – a situation that no one wants. On average, from 1998 to 2004 about half a million individual salmon and trout escaped from fish farms each year. While that’s a relatively small percentage of total farmed fish production, it’s still nearly equal to the number of wild salmon that return to Norway’s rivers every year to spawn. In March 2006, the Directorate of Fisheries took decisive action to dramatically cut the number of escapees with “Vision – No Escapees”, a 30-point plan that was revised and updated at the end of 2007.
In 2006, the year the Government first instituted its plan, escaped trout and salmon totalled 935,000 fish – but by 2007, that number had dropped to 404,000. Numbers from the first quarter of 2008 also show a dramatic drop in escapees as compared to the same period in 2007. “I’m very committed to the Norwegian aquaculture industry operating in a sustainable manner,” says Fisheries and Coastal Affairs Minister Pedersen. “Escaped fish along with salmon lice are the biggest environmental challenges facing Norwegian aquaculture today. That’s why I’m happy to see that our broad-based, focused efforts on a variety of fronts are giving results.”

Norway’s aquaculture industry is tightly regulated to ensure safe food products and humane treatment of fish.
© Norwegian Seafood Export Council

Norwegian farmed fish are among the most thoroughly tested food animals in the world.
© Per Alfsen/Norwegian Seafood Export Council

Healthy, Safe & Delicious

Norwegian food safety and production laws generally coincide with European Union laws – a necessary and prudent approach, particularly since Europe is Norway’s biggest export market for fish. The most recent reflection of this is the Norwegian Food Act from January 2004, which regulates food from its source to its consumption, which, for fisheries, is from fjord to fork.
While the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs oversees fish and seafood production, the new food law also created the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, and the subsequent formation of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority (Mattilsynet), crafted from the former Norwegian Animal Health Authority, the Norwegian Agricultural Inspection Service, the Norwegian Food Control Authority, the Directorate of Fisheries Inspectorate and the Municipal Food Control Authority. The Norwegian Food Safety Authority has responsibility for safety along every step of the food chain, from the feed stuffs that are fed to animals to the food itself,whether sold or served in restaurants.
These regulatory bodies have strong scientific support for their activities, through research and information provided by the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research (NIFES), the Institute of Marine Research and the National Veterinary Institute. The Norwegian Medicines Authority, the National Pollution Control Authority and Nofima, which was formed from Akvaforsk, Fiskeriforskning, Matforsk and Norconserv to specialize in research and development for the aquaculture, fisheries and food industries, also guarantee that government agencies get the highest calibre information possible.

Cooperation, & Widely Available Information

As important as providing good information to Government agencies and the industry is making information available to the public at large. For example, NIFES maintains a searchable database (available at that allows the public to see the institute’s monitoring results for a variety of substances, whether nutrients or pollutants, that might be found in fish. The Directorate of Fisheries and Statistics Norway maintains statistics for the fisheries and aquaculture industry, along with key indicators of the biological health of the country’s fisheries.
Industry leaders such as PHARMAQ and Intervet Norge AS have also contributed their share, with research and development of fish vaccines a prime example, according to Svein Hallbjørn Steien, Vice President/veterinarian AVSF with Innovation Norway. The success of vaccines in protecting fish from a variety of diseases means that Norwegian aquaculture now uses less than 500 kilogrammes of antibiotics to produce 700,000 tonnes of fish. “We are 100% sure that we do not sell fish that contain antibiotics,” he says.
Steien says this cooperative effort amongst industry, Government and research institutes has a key factor in the overall success and sustainability of the Norwegian fisheries and aquaculture industries. “By working together, we can use the results everywhere in the industry,” he adds. “We can coordinate the research, and send the results directly to companies…. Food from the sea will be very important in the next 50 years. What we are doing could be done all over the world.”

Norway’s clean, deep fjords are ideal for fish farming. © Per Eide