New numbers show booming African market for Lofoten stockfish

Lofoten's fish drying racks are an iconic symbol of the industry that's kept this part of Norway alive.

New data released today confirms what many in the fishing industry suspected: Nigeria is the world’s top buyer of Lofoten’s stockfish this year, eclipsing the once dominant Italian market by 20 per cent.


Clad in blue coveralls and yellow ear covers, Jörn systematically pushes hundreds of kilos of dried fish through a whining bandsaw, sending up clouds of fishy sawdust. Gradually plastic bags fill up with thousands of US dollars’ worth of stockfish, Norway’s oldest export.

“In high season we are working here 12 to 15 hours a day,” says Jörn, pleasantly, showing off his warehouse. Although it seems bursting with fish, he maintains that this is the slow season.

Little has changed in Jörn’s workplace since the earliest photographs captured life on the weather-beaten Lofoten archipelago.
The blood red fishermen’s cottages, the rorbuer, still cling to the rocks. They have been there since the 12th century to accommodate the influx of fishermen during the high season. The fishing boats still sail determinedly out of the harbour in the morning and return at night bearing massive catches. And the clocks all seem to tick a little slower here – especially in the off season when the tourism and fishing have winded down and millions of kilos of fish is left drying on the iconic wooden racks.

“We have the best climate for it – for drying,” explains Jörn. “In Lofoten there is a good climate because you can just hang the fish from when it’s zero to four degrees. When it’s warmer flies come and when it’s colder it’s frozen.”

Stockfish is a delicacy in Norway and a staple in many other countries. For cod a fisherman is paid 12 kroner a kilo (about US $2). The fish is processed at the plant and then sold in bulk for 150 kroner per kilo. At the end of the line, the stockfish can be sold in top restaurants for over 400 NOK (about US $60) per dish.

Last year Norway exported over 6000 metric tons of stockfish - nearly 4000 of which came from Lofoten.

Lofoten is one of the oldest parts in Scandinavia with rocks dating back three billion years and a fishing industry over a millennium old. With its production of Lent-friendly, long-lasting dried fish, the industry has relied on traditionally Catholic markets like Italy, Spain and Portugal – three of the economies suffering the most in the current eurozone crisis. Sales have dropped dramatically during the peak of the Euro panic, but Ove Johansen, an analyst at the Norwegian Seafood Council, thinks the worst is over.

“The crisis is not over, but they have a more optimistic view on the future,” says Johansen. “So it seems that the downhill has passed.”

At the height of Lofoten’s exports in 2005, 654 million kroner (US $94 million) worth of stockfish was being shipped around the world. In 2013 sales came in around the 570 million NOK mark.

One unexpected market is booming, however: Nigeria. The West African country has traditionally imported fish heads and other byproducts, preferring whatever protein source is cheapest at the time. Not so anymore.

So far this year, Nigeria has imported 275 million NOK worth of stockfish. “That makes them the biggest market for stockfish,” says Johansen. Compared to the same period last year, exports to Nigeria have increased by 88 percent.

“The Nigerian market, like many of the African markets, is developing quite fast. They are now also buying more expensive items. For instance, the stockfish from Lofoten.”

Where Nigeria, once in the throes of a massive financial crisis in the 1980s, used to be satisfied with importing heads and tails of stockfish for bottom-of-the-barrel prices, now they have developed an appetite for the more expensive cuts. The current plunge in oil prices, however, is devastating the Nigerian economy which is almost entirely dependent on crude exports.

That, in turn, could impact their Norwegian imports. A default in payment or a steep slump in sales could destabilize the precarious financial situation of the Lofoten fishing industry. Producing stockfish is expensive and fishermen take on debt to finance the operation from the start of the season in February until November when their cheque is finally cut. DNB bank in Bodø currently finances 80 per cent of the Lofoten industry.

Luckily for fishermen, the Norwegian fish business is adapting in other ways besides finding new markets - ways that see them paid upfront for their fresh catch. Whereas in the past most fish pulled out of Lofoten’s waters was destined to be dried and sold as stockfish, Jörn says over the last three years more variations of cod production are being tested.

To cope with the changes in the market Lofoten stockfish manufacturers have been experimenting with new ways of processing the fish.

“We are trying to get deals with other companies producing for them exactly…like filet, smoked fish,” says Jörn. He walks through a warehouse where huge tubs are brimming with cod of all sizes, packed in salt water ice baths, finally stopping at a halibut spilling over the side of its container. “This one is actually quite small,” he says holding up the 20 kilo-or-so fish.

The Norwegians have had to experiment in with cheaper manufacturing techniques the past. Today, clipfish – salted cod – exports are worth nearly seven times more than stockfish. Fish producers turned increasingly to the less labour-intensive clipfish in the 1980s when Nigerian preferences turned away from stockfish to cheaper herring and Alaskan pollock.

“They are importing protein, mainly,” says Johansen. “They can get protein from a number of sources,”

But whether there is a crisis in Europe or Nigeria, Johansen isn’t too concerned about the future of Lofoten’s fishing industry.

“People need to eat during the crisis as well,” he says. Regardless of the euro being in flux over 75 per cent of Portuguese will dine on clipfish for Christmas this year - the same as they have for centuries.