Yes, you can eat cod with a clear conscience!

Posted by John Rutherford, FASFA on 14 December 2011

Isn't it everyone's fantasy to be eating chocolate with friendly Norwegians while listening to a marine scientist explain why there are more cod in the Barents Sea today than at any time since the end of WW2?

This particular treat was part of the third day of an extraordinary trip to Alesund in Norway for the top ten finalists in this year's National Fish & Chip Awards - to find out about the frozen-at-sea (FAS) whitefish supply chain.

We flew from Heathrow and then to Oslo. Sadly fog delayed our flight so we missed our evening connection to Alesund, but the Norwegian Export Council already had arranged an airport hotel, with an excellent dinner and an early start flying north the next day. At this point the real impact of sterling's devaluation against the Norwegian Kroner (NOK) was brought home - a half-litre of local lager costing almost £8 before dinner (and nearly £30 afterwards - a clear signal to the more mature members of the trip that it was time for bed!).

At dawn the sky cleared as we flew over the mountains into Alesund, capital of the Norwegian white-fish industry. What a glorious day that turned out to be. Kitted out in survival suits (does my bum look big in this?) and life-jackets, we were taken on fast RIBs around the fjords, passing seal, puffin and guillemot colonies, to the beautiful port of Vartdal to meet the trawler Ramoen.

The Ramoen is named after the mountain behind the village. Whether Vartdal was named after the first settlers, or vice versa, our hosts were Knot and Atle Vartdal, plus the vessel's skipper officers and crew who were to show us exactly how FAS cod and haddock fillets are caught, processed and frozen within four to five hours of leaving the water.

Atle led the tour and answered every question before hosting a splendid lunch of their own lightly steamed cod and boiled potatoes - a national speciality and greatly enjoyed by everyone.

The trip back to Alesund was another treat, this time on board two much older fishing boats sailing into the setting sun - time for some of us to rod & line fish the fjord. FASFA was the clear winner with two cod; finalists and Seafish caught one each (1 cod, 1 coley) and as for the Norwegian Export Council…(well, you decide).

Dinner that evening was spectacular, with sixteen of the major vessel owners, skippers and directors taking time to host their British guests personally to ensure we properly understood how what we had seen was so important to guarantee the quality of sea frozen fish. Typical of our hosts' refreshingly open attitude was their frank agreement that it is the North Atlantic and Barents Sea that is so special, so while everyone present would focus on Norway, other FASFA trawlers are delivering similar quality and fishing equally sustainably.

That sustainability message was driven home the next morning when Bjarte Bogstad (a leading scientist from Norway's Institute of Marine Research in Bergen) joined us to explain Norway's fishing policy. Norway introduced its own No Discard policy in 1987 (we wonder, will the EU be brave enough to follow?)

About two-thirds of Norwegian cod is caught in the Barents Sea, and stocks there are now at high levels last seen immediately after the end of WW2 , during which only very limited fishing limited had occurred. Haddock is if possible doing even better; with the highest spawning stock ever recorded. As a result of both a strict control policy and benevolent climate conditions, Bjarte explained, both cod and haddock catches are expected to stay at their present high levels at least for the near future.

Finally, we were introduced to the Norwegian PR campaign "Fisk Forever". Trawler owners involved in exporting have agreed to fund a two year programme to market their businesses - built around the long term sustainability of cod and haddock. Overall, the whole tour was so friendly, honest and well presented that there is no doubt that all ten of our finalists are now happy to champion the cause of high quality, sustainable fish & chips as part of a healthy diet - with memories and friendships made in Norway to last a lifetime.

Never forget however the true price of fish is measured in men's lives. On our final walk through town we found this hauntingly beautiful statue overlooking the harbour, in memory of widows and families of 33 local fishermen who lost their lives when seven open boats sank in a severe north-westerly gale off the coast of Alesund on 13 August 1885.


John Rutherford, FASFA