Holy Mackerel


Mackerel! When you travel around the country these days you are bound to hear this word. This fish is suddenly everywhere in the sea around Iceland.

On my way to the West Fjords late last month, I had a brief stop in the village Hólmavík in the Strandir region. On the pier there I saw young and old anglers catch hundreds of fat mackerels with rods and spinners.

A group of hunters were returning from a puffin hunting tour in Grímsey island (that’s Grímsey in Steingrímsfjördur, not the big island in the north) and they were skinning their catch on the pier.

Puffin is actually great food and has been eaten in Iceland for centuries like most sea birds. Now huge schools of mackerel are competing with the puffins and guillemots over their main source of food—small sand-eels and parr of all kinds of fish.

When I was in Norway 20 years ago I tasted hot-smoked mackerel for the first time. I bought it from a fishmonger on the pier in Bergen.

It was delicious. I nearly ate a whole fillet. Before I had never tasted it and only seen the odd mackerel, as it was not at all common in Icelandic waters.

The sea around Iceland is warming up after quite a long cold spell and this means that the Atlantic mackerel, which is a vagrant fish that follows prey into warmer waters, is now swimming and hunting in Icelandic waters in huge quantity.

In springtime when the mackerel enters the 200 mile limit, which is our jurisdiction, it is as thin as a stick. When it goes out again in autumn when the sea starts to cool down it looks like a small torpedo having gobbled up everything it can.

The mackerel is a very able predator, fast and furious, and literally vacuums the ocean on its way through. Some describe it as a plague because it is so greedy. Almost like a swarm of locusts leaving the ocean devastated.

I believe it is the fault of the mackerel that puffins and Arctic terns on the south coast can no longer find food for their chicks.

In the last four years we have seen puffin stocks in the Westman Islands wither away. There were over 800,000 pairs of puffins there a few years ago.

I also have the theory that the release of well over one million salmon parr from the Rangá river system and other rivers in the south is partly to blame for the failure in the Westman Island puffin stock.

Once out in the ocean, the parr will devour anything they can get hold of like a pack of hungry wolves. I think this should be investigated.

In Hólmavík I met a friend of mine who is running a small café and restaurant there. She had a full freezer of mackerel that she did not know how to cook.

“Hot smoke it on the barbecue,” I said to her.

“How?” she asked with a puzzled expression.

“It’s easy. First you have to find good sawdust—there must be plenty of it here as there is so much driftwood around on the coast. Then you heat the barbecue really well. Set the sawdust on fire, place the fillets inside the barbecue and close the lid. Season the fillets beforehand with salt and pepper and perhaps some lemon juice. It will be ready in five to eight minutes.”

She made some experiments and a few days later I found out that the dish had been added to the restaurant’s menu. Served with good rye bread, eggs and capers.

Back home in Reykjavík, when taking some salmon I had caught to the smokehouse, I found out that people were calling the smoker constantly to ask whether he smoked mackerel. He said no to them all.

He shook his head and said to me: “I don’t do any hot smoking here. It is crazy. They are calling from all around the country.”

Of course fishing vessel owners in this country are also in on the mackerel fever. This year the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries issued a 130,000 ton mackerel quota to great disappointment and protest from the EU fisheries department and Norway.

They claim ownership over the Atlantic mackerel stock and do not want us to catch it at all—they have not invited us to the negotiating table to share any of it. But remember that it is in our waters where the mackerel now grows fat

Hence last year there was a mackerel gold rush in this country and all the herring and capelin vessels went after mackerel with a vengeance catching as much as they could.

Most of it was boiled into meal and oil in the meal factories in the East Fjords. A huge shame in my opinion, because it is one of the best fish there is for human consumption.

Now, because of the quota, they are making the most of their catches, freezing the mackerel and exporting it, mainly to eastern Europe.

We have had some threats because of this. The Norwegian fishing association and some parties within the EU fisheries associations are demanding an embargo on all our fish products. Yesterday the London Independent reported a new Cod War was starting over the Icelandic mackerel fisheries.

But I want to ask an important question. Denmark and other EU mackerel nations catch huge amounts of sand-eels every year.

The sand-eel is basic food for many species of seabirds and fish. Mackerel, salmon, cod and other much more valuable species all feed on the sand-eel. Why is the mackerel looking for food in Icelandic waters? The answer is simple: Because it cannot find any in its normal habitat.

Norway bases its mega seafood industry on such a huge paradox that it is bound to fail in a big way in the near future.

They treat their farmed salmon on fodder made from small fish caught everywhere in the world’s oceans. It takes up to 15 kilos of small fish, sand-eel, capelin, herring, you name it, to make one kilo of farmed salmon.

That is the big paradox of fish farming. Unless they find a way to make the salmon vegetarian this is bound to fail soon. And what a disaster it will be for our ecosystems.

In my opinion Iceland should become the first nation in the world to ban all fisheries but those which are carried out to feed human beings and are proven to be self-sustainable.

We were the first nation in the world to ban whaling when the industrial nations had nearly hunted the big whales to extinction.

Why should we not fish mackerel that swims before our eyes and feeds on our small fish and competes over food with our larger fish and seabirds?

This is one of the reasons why I don’t like the EU and I believe 60 percent of my countrymen agree with me. They want to control what we fish and eat in our own waters. At the same time they have ruined their own seas with blatant overexploitation.

I strongly believe a fisherman in Hólmavík has much better judgment of what he can catch than the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Bjarni Brynjólfsson – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.