Driving along the winding highway through tundra-like landscapes and herds of wandering reindeer you eventually reach the Northern Norwegian coast and the small town of Bugøynes tucked into an inlet in Eastern Finnmark. Once a bustling town of 400 it has, over the years, slowed down. The sleepy fishing village it has become belies the economic turmoil the town once faced.
Bugøynes was a thriving cod fishing village until the collapse of cod stocks in 1982 forced the town to near extinction.
-It was very hard, said hardened fisherman, Leif Ingel.
-We didn’t have any income. Some people moved away some people sold their boats some found new work. For example on trawlers, said Ingle a local who lived through the period.
The collapse affected most of the coastal societies in Northern Norway. While the fishermen sold their boats and prepared to attempt a new way of life after centuries of living from the sea, others in the town struggled to find a solution for a town that was quickly drowning.
Leif-Astor Bakken a local at the time, now working in Kirkenes, led a group that turned to drastic measures to save their town.
-It was a society in deep crisis, more than 50% of the adults were unemployed, he explained.
Something had to be done. In 1989 the group put an advertisement in Dagbladet, a central Oslo newspaper. They put the town up for sale. They were willing to move to wherever in the country was willing to have them.
According to Bakken, the results were almost instantaneous.
- It was a huge change overnight from the day before the advertisement to the day after, he said a smile hiding behind his bushy greying mustache.
-People had been blaming each other but now they were working together. So instead of blaming they were moving in the same direction to do something positive about the situation in Bugøynes.
The advertisement turned national and international attention on the small town. No one offered to make the purchase, but people had begun to take notice of a town that otherwise may have died quietly, out of sight and mind of the rest of the country. After the advertisement tourism began to develop as people came north to see the small town of Bugøynes.
At the same time king crab, introduced into the Barents Sea by Russian scientists in the 1960s, began to move east into Norway. The government in Oslo and fishermen in Bugøynes became interested in making use of the new species. But it was a long time between the discovery of the king crab in Norway and the regulation of fishing of the giant crustacean.
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It was illegal to fish king crab in Norway between 1994 and 2000. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that fishermen in the area were able to develop an industry around king crab fishing.
Leif Ingel was one of the first to receive a permit to fish the king crab. Since then the industry has begun to boom with the establishment of organizations like Norway King Crab. The small company is the only one in Norway to ship live crab to restaurants and is developing an international reputation as a good source for king crab.
In many ways the king crab also saved the town.
-Without the king crab we would not have any seafood production, said Ingel.
-The king crab has given us big incomes and because of that we can invest in new boats and that’s the reason we’re still living here. It is the income we get from the king crab and the other fisheries.
Ingel now fishes both king crab and cod, which has moved back into the area in recent years. He says having the king crab is beneficial for the economy because it is a reliable resource. It will always be there while he can never be sure the cod will come into the bay every season. The species is now strictly regulated in the commercial zone around bugoynes and in Russia. It is freely fished in the Western parts of the Northern coast.
While Bugøynes made it through the cod stock collapse of the 80s and the downturn in the 90s, the town still has far to go. It still faces some of the same issues many small northern towns are dealing with, population decline and an aging population. That is in addition to prices that make building new homes in the area restrictive.
In 1978 the town had a population 0f 400 people, it is now home to only 200. But Erling Haugen, Managing Director of Norway King Crab, sees hope in the fact that the local school with 14 pupils, now has more children in it than it did in 1978. But he still recognizes the potential perils his northern home still faces.
-If we are going to survive in the future we need young people, not older people, he said. It’s very nice that people are moving back again, but we need young people here.
The king crab and the determined efforts of some town people may have made it possible to live and thrive in Bugøynes once again beyond the cod collapse, but challenges do lie ahead in dealing with these new issues. Bakken remains confident about the future of his hometown.
- I’m a Bugøynes patriot and as a Bugøynes patriot of course I believe Bugøynes will survive whatever. And forever.
Written by Chantaie Allick
Click here to read more about the environmental impacts of the king crab in part two of our series