IIt was no ordinary cod that Teitur Christensen was preparing. The head chef at Barbara Fish House, one of four restaurants located in small wooden houses in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, Christensen was organizing what is known as a “bank night”, because of the main course. In the cozy little rooms of these old houses, one of which was built more than 500 years ago, his team prepared to serve what has become an almost mythical fish: the Faroe Bank cod.
The reputation of the Faroe Bank cod is based in part on its size. It’s huge: a three-year-old fish is already twice the size, on average, of Atlantic cod. But it is also legendary for its rarity. A genetically distinctive member of the cod family, it was once abundant before it was nearly extinct. In 2008, all commercial fishing for cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands was banned. Now only the Faroe Islands Marine Research Institute (Famri) can catch them, when their researchers examine the fish population twice a year.
Christensen obtained 30 fish from Famri and prepared a clavicle dish, a piece behind the pectoral fin that is often discarded. Faroe Bank cod is not only larger than regular cod, it is fatter and denser. “The texture was almost like chicken,” he said. “I tried to do the same with normal cod but it is impossible.”
But if few people can catch Faroe Bank cod, that in turn means few can taste it. What was once a key part of the Faroese fishing industry, a species so common that it was exported in large numbers to continental Europe, has now become the preserve of some fine diners in the capital., on a menu of around $ 200 per head.
The Faroe Islands are essentially mountains: 340 of them, rolling down the 18 small islands that make up this archipelago halfway between Scotland and Iceland. More than 70,000 sheep roam the treeless and grassy peaks and green valleys, outnumbering the human population of 52,000. But it is not from the sheep, or from the land, that the Faroe Islands make their living; the true wealth of the islands is found under the water.
Perhaps more than any other nation, the Faroe Islands depend on the riches of the ocean. More than 90% of GDP comes from aquaculture and fishing. The Faroe Bank, home to the famous cod, is a small, fertile area about 45 miles (75 km) southwest of Suðuroy, the southernmost island.
The bank itself resembles a seamount, with a peak some 45 meters below sea level and a drop of more than 900 meters. Its unique geography traps the warm currents from the south, which are separated from the rest of the Faroe Islands plateau by a channel of cold water that flows with the pressure of all the world’s rivers combined. “It’s like an invisible fence, which makes it an isolated ecosystem,” said Eyðfinn Magnussen, a marine biologist at the University of the Faroe Islands.
This isolation is what gave the cod its unique characteristics. In addition to faster growth and higher fat percentage compared to Atlantic cod, Bank of the Faroe Islands cod have lighter skin as much of the seafloor is white shell sand, and less vertebrae, as often seen in fish that live in warmer waters.
Most of the people of the Faroe Islands know that Bankatoskur, or shoal cod, is a large and unique fish, but historically the islanders did not show much interest in it. Most of the local population had access to a boat or knew someone who did, and could fish freely in the fjords around the islands. A 100-mile round trip to the Bank of the Faroe Islands to fish for this special cod didn’t make much sense. “There was never a market to sell fish on the islands,” says Páll Gregersen, a fish exporter from the Faroe Islands.
However, Gregersen says that while local people didn’t realize how good the Faroese fish was, Spanish buyers did. “The Faroese cod is really good,” he says. “But the cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands is one level higher than that.” As interest from Spain grew, the 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 Cod.
Jógvan M Absalonsen, like Gregersen, used to sell fish to Spain and Italy. Starting in 1996, he sold cod from the Faroe Bank until there was nothing left to catch. Even now that he has retired from fishing, he says he still has news from the Spanish buyer. “He asks me about the bank and if it is still closed,” he says.
At its peak in 2003, the islanders reported catching 6,289 tonnes of cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands. In 2007, that number was reduced to 477 tonnes. The population has not recovered since. Since 2008 and the fishing ban, Famri scientists have concluded each year that the cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands is “severely depleted” and has not shown sufficient signs of recovery. And every year fishermen and experts debate in the Faroese media about whether it is possible to fish on the bank again.
One argument in favor is that the haddock population in the area has been recovering since 2014, which has sparked the interest of fishermen seeking access. Líggjas Johannesen, captain of the Klakkur longliner, is one of them. He thinks it is a paradox to keep the bank closed due to a fish that has not shown any signs of recovery. “Why protect something that is not there?” he says.
There is some suspicion among fishermen that since the Bank of the Faroe Islands cod is now considered such an exclusive catch, it is being protected to the detriment of the Faroese people who make their living from the sea. Johan Mortensen, the restaurant consultant who first came up with the idea of serving the cod caught as part of scientific surveys, wants to permanently close the bank and turn it into a national marine park, only to be exploited for events. culinary specials such as Bank afternoons.
Johannesen is from Klaksvík, one of the northernmost islands, which is often referred to as the capital of the fishing industry. He says it doesn’t bother him that the fish he used to catch at the Faroe Bank is now served only in upscale restaurants in the capital. “They wouldn’t know the difference if you gave them a normal cod,” he says, though Christensen denies it, and points out as a chef that it’s a very different fish to prepare and serve.
However, environmentalists warn that opening the area to fishing for haddock, or anything else, would still harm the Bank of the Faroe Islands cod, although their numbers are now small. Petur Steingrund, a fisheries biologist who is in charge of the department of the marine institute that surveys the area, is one of them. But Steingrund realizes that if the cod population doesn’t start to improve soon, it will be difficult to resist social and economic pressure to reopen the bank. “I can’t imagine that the bank will be closed for many more decades,” he says. “Especially if other fish are thriving in the area.”
However, it is not just overfishing that scares him. The bank was closed for a few years in the early 1990s to allow the cod population to rebound, which it did to some extent. Why not continue to recover now?
Steingrund wonders if there could be other reasons, like the ocean getting warmer. Cod spawning does not become fish at temperatures above 9.6 ° C (49 ° F): the ideal is between zero and 8 ° C. In recent years, the minimum temperature recorded in the bank was 8.5 ° C. “That’s extremely high for cod to thrive,” says Steingrund.
It is not just the cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands that has become a rare fad; the islanders eat less fish than before. 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 that cod from the Bank of the Faroe Islands can help people appreciate the aquatic treasures the islands have to offer, even if they can only be served on rare occasions. As for whether to reopen shore fishing for other species, he believes nothing should be allowed to put the islands’ most famous fish at risk. “You have to protect it, if there is [even a] little is left, ”says Christensen. “It can’t just be extinguished so that fishermen can make a little more money.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism