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Stories from Norway

The keepers of the legacy

In spite of long hours, rough working conditions and an unforgiving climate, new generations of Norwegian fishermen are keeping the family traditions alive. Why?

The keepers of the legacy

To become a fisherman

Fishing has kept Norwegians alive for thousands of years. Although the methods and the technology have evolved, the principles of catching fish and staying afloat in one of the world’s roughest and most unpredictable environments remain the same.

The knowhow and passion you need to spend your life fishing in the Arctic is not something Norwegian fishermen learn at school. They do not learn their craft from textbooks or blackboards, nor through daily, meticulous practice at home. Instead, the sea is in their blood: passed on from previous generations and cultivated ever since they were old enough to step aboard a boat.

For today’s fishermen, fishing isn’t just a profession – it’s staying true to family values. Here are the stories of three fishermen who are proud to carry their family’s legacy every time they head out to sea.

Pål Arild Pettersen - Carrying the torch

Carrying the torch

At the tender age of seven, Pål Arild Pettersen was swept out to sea.

“Some friends and I were playing on the rocks by the shallows. I tried to reach a piece of floating styrofoam,” he says, pointing down below from a bridge in Henningsvær, the fishing village where he grew up, and out toward the ocean. Pål Arild lost his balance and fell in.

Pål Arild was lucky: An alert neighbour spotted him falling into the water and managed to hook him by his oilskin trousers with a spiked stick. “It wasn’t really a traumatic experience,” he says today. “It’s different for kids – you’re comforted, and then it’s OK. But I remember being sad for having lost one of my wellies.”

43 years later, he’s still out there albeit under somewhat merrier circumstances. His ancestors made the long trip up north to Finnmark every year, a distance that takes three days in a modern, motorised boat, relying on oars and sails.

My favourite part of fishing is in the morning, being the only one awake, sailing out to sea. There’s something profound about it. I feel completely present. Just taking in the silence and feeling alone in a huge universe – that’s a powerful, almost spiritual feeling.
Pål Arild Pettersen


Although happy to carry the family torch, Pål Arild does not envy the fishing conditions of bygone days.

“My grandfather used to remind me to be thankful for the engines in our boats. It was a tough, even brutal life at times, and I’m sure many boys had to become men before their time.”

However, a lot has happened during the 50-year-old’s career at sea. The structural change of the Norwegian fish industry, fewer and bigger boats, technological improvements and better pay has improved the conditions for his work enormously. “The fishermen starting their careers now get to be part of a much more professional business. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the need for experience, which is passed on through generations and takes a lot of hard grind.”

As an adult, is Pål Arild ever scared out on the open sea? Not really, he says, but he does remember being 15 years old on a prawn trawler off the Finnmark coast, bouncing through 13-metre waves.

“It was pitch dark, and for once, that was a relief.”

Jens Einar Bjørkås Johnsen - Third-generation fisherman

Third-generation fisherman

There was never any doubt about what Jens-Einar Bjørkås Johnsen of Båtsfjord, Norway wanted to do for a living.

“I knew I was going to be a fisherman before I left primary school,”  he says.

Like many other who choose to spend their lives on the waves catching fish, fishing is in his blood. His grandfather was a fisherman who arrived here from Lofoten, another prominent fishing region. His grandfather initially came for the seasonal fishing, but then chose to settle in the area permanently. His son followed suit, and now Jens-Einar represents the third straight generation of Bjørkås fishermen.

A family of fishermen

Although his father retired nine years ago and is now 74 years old, his notion of “retirement” is a bit unusual: when Jens-Einar is returning to the harbour with the catch of the day, his father is often waiting to help unload the haul.

“He’s a really tough guy – at his age, he can still put in 12-14 hours of work in a day if he wants to.”

Although help is always welcome, his father's presence can be something of a mixed blessing. “You know, he's always complaining that my generation of fishermen has it too easy. Back in the days, he always had to gut the fish himself, whereas we can just deliver our haul at the processing centre and go home, that kind of stuff,” he says.

Jens-Einar has two grown-up children, and although both of them have joined him out at sea, neither of them are considering a career in fishing. But that doesn't bother him much. “The total number of fishermen around here has remained stable, and has even increased somewhat over the last few years, so there's still a future in fishing for the next generation,” he says.

Asle Jørgensen - Born to fish

Born to fish

It’s close to noon in Henningsvær, Lofoten. This particular Thursday in February is cold, wet and inhospitable even for the weather-beaten Northern Norwegian coast, and a surprising number of local and visiting boats - given the season - are docked at their usual berths. For some fishermen, rest is not an option that comes easily.

A young man arrives by boat at one of the fish landings closest to the sea. He and an older colleague are about to deliver approximately 1500 kilos of saithe. Not bad for two hours of work, you might think.

However, the young man, whose name is Asle Jørgensen is not too happy. “Today was a disappointment,” he states flatly after unloading his catch onto the pier in vast metal boxes. Although the volume of fish appears massive to outsiders, Asle knows what treasures these waters hold, and knows he can do better.

Hoping for plenty of fish

Things are likely to pick up for the mild-mannered and friendly 27-year-old. Having honed his work ethic long before he acquired his first boat at the age of 19, he will repeat the same daily routine tomorrow – get up, get out, haul his fishing nets and get back.

“I’m hoping for better conditions tomorrow, with great weather and plenty of fish. That’s the part of this lifestyle that I’m drawn to,” he says, adding that he knew he would dedicate his life to fishing even as a child. Asle hails from Selje in Sogn og Fjordane, a village situated some 1500 kilometres south of Lofoten. His family has been in the game for generations, criss-crossing the Norwegian coastline for at least a century. Lofoten may be where it’s all happening right now, but the young man has laid his plans for the next months.

“I’ll have a few weeks off after this, and then I’ll head out for the mighty Greenland halibut – my favourite catch. After that, cod fishing in the North Sea beckons. I really love the mix of it,” Asle says before retreating to the lodge where he and his fellow fishermen do their laundry and shoot the breeze.