Cod almighty: how a ‘mythical’ Faroes delicacy has vanished

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It was no ordinary cod that Teitur Christensen was preparing. The head chef at Barbara Fish House, one of four restaurants located in tiny wooden houses in Torshavn, the Faroe Islands’ capital, Christensen was hosting what has become known as a “Bank evening”, because of the main dish. In the small cosy rooms of these ancient houses – one of which was built more than 500 years ago – his team was getting ready to serve what has become an almost mythical fish: the Faroe Bank cod.

The Faroe Bank cod’s reputation is partly built on its size. It is huge: a three-year-old specimen is already twice as large, on average, as the Atlantic cod. But it is also legendary because of its rarity. A genetically distinctive member of the cod family, it was once plentiful before being nearly fished to extinction. In 2008, all commercial fishing of Faroe Bank cod was banned. Only the Faroe Marine Research Institute (Famri) is now allowed to catch them, when its researchers survey the fish population twice a year.

Faroe bank cod fish on ice

Christensen got his hands on 30 fish from Famri, and prepared a dish from the clavicle, a piece behind the pectoral fin that is often discarded. Faroe Bank cod are not just bigger than regular cod, they are fattier and denser. “The texture was almost like chicken,” he said. “I tried to do the same with normal cod but it’s impossible.”

But if few people can fish for the Faroe Bank cod, that in turn means few can taste it. What was once a key part of the Faroe Islands’ fishing industry – a species so commonplace it was exported in vast quantities to mainland Europe – has now become the exclusive preserve of a few fine diners in the capital, on a menu of about $200 a head.

The Faroe Islands are essentially mountains: 340 of them, rolling across the 18 small islands that make up this archipelago about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. More than 70,000 sheep roam on the treeless, grass-covered peaks and verdant valleys, outnumbering the human population of 52,000. But it is not from sheep, or the land, that the Faroese make their living; the real wealth of the islands lies beneath the water.

Perhaps more than any other nation, the Faroese depend on the riches of the ocean. More than 90% of the country’s exports come from aquaculture and fishing. The Faroe Bank, home to the celebrated cod, is a small and fertile area about 45 miles (75km) south-west of Suduroy, the most southerly island.

The bank itself resembles an undersea mountain, peaking about 45 metres below sea level and descending more than 900 metres. Its unique geography traps warm southern currents, which are divided from the rest of the Faroese plateau by a cold-water channel that flows with the pressure of all the world’s rivers combined. “It is like an invisible fence, which makes it an isolated ecosystem,” said Eydfinn Magnussen, a marine biologist at the University of the Faroe Islands.

This isolation is what gave the cod its unique features. As well as faster growth and a higher fat percentage compared with Atlantic cod, Faroe Bank cod have lighter skin – as much of the seabed is white shell sand – and fewer vertebrae, as is often seen in fish that live in warmer waters.

Most Faroese people know that a Bankatoskur, or Bank cod, is a large and unique fish, but historically the islanders did not show much interest in it. Most local people had access to a boat or knew someone who did, and could freely fish in the fjords around the islands. A 100-mile round trip to the Faroe Bank to fish for this special cod did not make much sense. “A market for selling fish in the islands was never there,” says Pall Gregersen, a Faroese fish exporter.

Torshavn harbour. Even in the capital, many of the houses have the islands' traditional grass roofs.

However, Gregersen says that while local people did not realise how good Faroese fish was, Spanish buyers did. “Faroese cod is really good,” he says. “But the Faroe Bank cod is one level higher than that.” As interest from Spain grew, islanders began to see the commercial potential of their unique cod. It was salted and sold abroad – to the Basque country in Spain, Italy or Portugal as bacalao.

Jogvan M Absalonsen, like Gregersen, used to sell fish to Spain and Italy. From 1996, he sold Faroe Bank cod until there were none left to catch. Even now that he has retired from fishing, he says he still hears from the Spanish buyer. “He asks me about the bank and if it’s still closed,” he says.

At its peak in 2003, the islanders reported catching 6,289 tonnes of cod from the Faroe Bank. In 2007, that number had fallen to 477 tonnes. The population has not recovered since then. Since 2008 and the fishing ban, scientists from Famri have concluded each year that the Faroe Bank cod is “severely depleted” and has not shown sufficient signs of recovery. And each year fishers and experts debate in the Faroese media about whether it is possible to fish at the bank again.

One argument in favour is that the haddock population in the area has been recovering since 2014, sparking interest among fishermen looking for access. Liggjas Johannesen, captain of the longliner ship Klakkur, is one of them. He thinks it is a paradox to keep the bank closed because of one fish that hasn’t shown any sign of recovery. “Why protect something that isn’t there?” he says.

There is some suspicion among fishers that because Faroe Bank cod are now considered such an exclusive catch, they are being protected to the detriment of Faroese people who earn a living from the sea. Johan Mortensen, the restaurant consultant who first came up with the idea of serving the cod caught as part of the scientific surveys, wants to close the bank permanently and turn it into an national marine park, only to be exploited for special culinary events such as the Bank evenings.

Kari Kristiansen, centre, a chef, with Olavur Sjudraberg, left, who have helped make the Faroe Bank cod so celebrated.

Johannesen is from Klaksvik, one of the more northerly islands, which is often referred to as the capital of the fishing industry. He says he is not bothered that the fish he used to catch in the Faroe Bank are now served only in upmarket restaurants in the capital. “They wouldn’t know the difference if you gave them a normal cod,” he claims, though Christensen disputes this, noting as a chef that it is a very different fish to prepare and serve.

Ecologists, however, warn that opening up the area to fishing for haddock – or anything else – would still harm the Faroe Bank cod, even though its numbers are now tiny. Petur Steingrund, a fisheries biologist who is in charge of the marine institute department that surveys the area, is one of them. But Steingrund realises that if the cod population does not start improving soon, it will be difficult to withstand the social and economic pressure to reopen the bank. “I can’t imagine that the bank will stay closed for many more decades,” he says. “Especially if other fish are thriving in the area.”

However it is not only the overfishing that scares him. The bank was closed for a few years in the early 1990s to allow the cod population to recover, which it did to an extent. Why is it not continuing to recover now?

Steingrund wonders if there could be other reasons, such as the increasingly warmer ocean. Cod spawn does not develop into fish in temperatures higher than 9.6C (49F): the ideal is between zero and 8C. In recent years, the minimum temperature recorded at the bank was 8.5C. “That’s extremely high for cod to thrive in,” Steingrund says.

It’s not just Faroe Bank cod that have become a rare treat; the islanders are eating less fish than they used to. Christensen laments how difficult it is for normal people to buy good fresh fish on the islands, even though fishing is the lifeblood of the economy.

He hopes the Faroe Bank cod can help people appreciate the aquatic treasures the islands have to offer, even if it can only be served on rare occasions. As for whether fishing on the bank should be reopened for other species, he thinks nothing should be allowed to risk the islands’ most celebrated fish. “You have to protect it, if there is [even a] little left of it,” Christensen says. “It can’t just be made extinct so fishermen can earn a bit more money.”

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