Back in January I wrote an article for The Grapevine about the bankruptcy of the fish factory in Flateyri, a tiny village in the Westfjords of Iceland, where I happen to own a house. At the time there was a lot of drama: Distress flares were being fired from the dock. To some, it felt like this was the first village to be sacrificed to the kreppa, an entire community on the verge of being abandoned by a cost-cutting government.
Not much has changed. Needless to say the village is still there, and so are its people, for the most part anyway. Some fish processing has resumed, albeit there is a protracted and complicated legal battle ensuing between Lotna (a company allegedly backed by Gylfi Sigurðsson, the Bundesliga footballer), another fish processing company from Reykjavík, and the regional development agency. It is a pretty much unwanted and uninteresting saga, which the Icelandic newspapers have for the most part given up on reporting.
But the situation is no less serious. What it means is this: In a village of 170 people, eleven are currently employed in the fish factory. Last Friday, nine of the eleven were told that they would be made redundant next month. As recently as five years ago, 120 people had jobs in the fish factory. A large proportion of the inhabitants of Flateyri have been unemployed and on benefits. Every couple of weeks there is another meeting about ‘the situation in Flateyri’, but there is a feeling in the town that nothing is being achieved. The villagers I spoke to fear another attempt by the authorities to close down the village school, following the recent closure of the care home in the village, making yet more people redundant.
My neighbour once told me that the school is the heart of the village. I never understood what he meant until I climbed to the top of the mountain above the village and looked down. In the silence of the fjords you can hear every sound, and the sound of the kids playing reverberates around the fjord, amplified by the wind and echoing against the mountains. The school is the heart in the sense that it pumps new life in to the village, and makes life here possible. No normal person is going to want to bring a family up in a remote, isolated settlement that involves a twenty kilometre drive through a mountain to the nearest school, no matter how beautiful that place is.
If the school ever does get closed down, the village will become little more than a few abandoned buildings and a collection of summerhouses, like so many other abandoned places dotted around the Icelandic countryside, and particularly the Westfjords. Flateyri is not by any means unique: It’s the same story across many of the tiny fishing villages of Iceland. This is what is going on in the Icelandic countryside today.
The death of Flateyri would be the end of a whole village, a whole culture, a whole human community that was until recently home to over 500 people. And the crazy thing—from an outsider’s perspective—is that there is no obvious reason why this should be the case. There’s a lot of fish in the ocean. Indeed, the fjord has some of the best fishing grounds in the whole of Iceland, that is why hobbyist sea anglers travel from all over the world come to the village to fish there every summer. But the village economy has completely collapsed because the fisheries management laws (the dreaded ‘quota system’) prevent people, for the most part, from making a living from fishing in the sea. And there are huge vested interests amongst the largely Reykjavík-based fishing industry in protecting the current legal position. It’s a uniquely Icelandic problem, and exactly the fight that is currently being played out in the intractable, untranslated, battles of the ‘big’ fisheries management bill currently being considered by the Icelandic parliament. That is what is going on behind the scenes here, and it’s a matter that is of absolutely critical importance to the future of towns like Flateyri, and of Iceland itself.