Iceland's fishermen ride out the economic storm

25th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Despite the global economic crisis, the sector remains a key part of the Icelandic economy where fish account for a large percentage of the country's total exports.

Grindavik -- Iceland's economy may have been battered by stormy weather in the past six months but for the country's fishing industry, business is still smooth sailing.

Eirikur Tomasson, a 55-year-old rugged former fisherman, runs Thorbjoern, one of the biggest fishing companies on the North Atlantic island. His father and three colleagues set up the business 60 years ago in the southwestern port town of Grindavik.

Despite the collapse of the country's banking system last October and close to nine percent of Icelanders being out of work, Tomasson says the current economic malaise is "not the worst crisis we have experienced."

"We of course had to adjust our activity to the new market conditions, with a decrease of prices of between 20 and 40 percent because our customers can't pay the same price as last year," he admitted.

The economic meltdown has led to a snap general election to be held this Saturday, with voters set to snub the party seen as responsible for the crisis and its pro-EU rivals tipped to come out on top.

Iceland's krona has lost almost 44 percent of its value against the euro, but Tomasson points out Thorbjoern does most of its business with the eurozone and Britain.

A weaker krona returns larger revenues when euros are converted back into the local currency. The company's turnover last year was six million euros (7.8 million dollars).

"The krona is weak today which is good for our exports," Tomasson said.

Just a few hundred metres (yards) from the company's head offices, staff, including workers from Poland, the Philippines and Morocco, toil away in a large warehouse where they prepare the day's catch to be sent to customers across Europe.

One of the 25 factory workers, Ali Emandour, 37, came to Iceland from Morocco with his wife two years ago to look for work.

He says that business is still running well despite the global economic turndown.

"Nothing has changed since the crisis ... We still have just as much fish as before," Emandour said.

"Between 10 and 12 tonnes of fish come through our factory each day," explains Hallfredur Bjarnason, a factory supervisor who has worked for the company for 19 years.

All of the fish, the majority of which are cod and haddock, caught by Thorbjoern's trawlers go through a lengthy treatment process before being sent out to customers.

First, the head and tail are removed before the flesh is cut out and made into fillets. Each fillet slice is then weighed before being seasoned in a salt bath for over two weeks.

The fillet cuts will end up on dinner plates in Barcelona or London -- the majority of 80 percent of Thorbjoern exports are destined for Spain's northern Catalunia region or Britain.

But the leftovers are not wasted either. Heads and tails are sent to Africa, especially Nigeria, where they can be used to make stews or soup.

"Nothing is wasted inside a fish ... A head, which is served in a soup, can feed up to five people", Bjarnason said.

Despite the global economic crisis, the sector remains a key part of the Icelandic economy where fish account for 36.6 of the country's total exports.

Last year, Iceland's 5,000 fishermen caught more than 1.3 million tonnes of fish worth 99 billion kronur (755 million dollars, 580 million euros), 90 percent of which was sold abroad.

Delphine Touitou/AFP/Expatica

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