Mag
Interview
Swimming Upstream: Biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson

Swimming Upstream: Biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson

Photos by
Varvara Lozenko

Published September 22, 2017

Jóhannes Sturlaugsson is very passionate about fish. After 16 years working at the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, Jóhannes decided to blaze his own trail in the field of fish research, founding his own company, Laxfiskar – the only independent research company focusing on the study of fish in Iceland – about fifteen years ago.

His passion for this field goes back to the very beginnings of his life.

“My interest in fish behaviour started when I was very young, fishing in the creeks and off the docks in Hafnarfjörður,” he recounts. “I’ve always been fascinated by fish. Although I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do when I grew up, I knew it was going to have something to do with fish. Luckily enough, I was able to study the behaviour of fish.”

As his research took him from the University of Iceland to government institutes, he found the research on fish behaviour to be sorely lacking.

“Here in Iceland, we are proud of what we have done in fisheries, and in many ways we should be,” Jóhannes says. “We have a lot of innovation when it comes to fisheries, except in the field of research.”

“It’s always a nice thing, in whatever you’re studying, that someone can make use of your information. That’s what drives me.”

Blazing trails

Frustrated with what he sees as a static and cumbersome system resistant to new ideas, Jóhannes took it upon himself to take his research into his own hands. Since then, he has engaged in truly pioneering work in Iceland. This has included the use of electronic tags, amongst them, the latest innovation: “pop-up satellite archival tags”, or PSATs, which track the movements of marine animals and transmit data to researchers via satellite. While this technology is used by marine biologists around the world to study fish, Jóhannes is the only one to use this technology on fish in Icelandic waters; first on salmon, and then on cod. Amazingly, we may know a lot about the movements of whales and where they congregate due to the use of satellite tags, but for long-migrating species of fish, we actually know very little about how and where our fish travel. Jóhannes is working to change that with the use of PSATs.

“With this innovation, we could get a massive amount of new information that could totally, for each species, change what we know,” Jóhannes explains. “We could discover new areas where we could fish, or we could learn we’re using inefficient fishing methods or fishing at the wrong times. And that’s just the financial side. There are endless biological and ecological gains we could make with this data.”

This is a major aspect of what sets Jóhannes’ research apart. Fish are normally studied in a laboratory setting; he prefers instead to study them in their natural habitat, in order to get a clearer and more accurate understanding of how they really behave in the wild.

Bucking the system

At the same time, Jóhannes believes that Iceland’s quota system – a complicated structure whereby larger fishing companies end up buying out the fishing quotas of smaller companies, effectively erasing jobs and contributing to the emptying out of the countryside – needs to be eliminated in its current form. This subject, however, has been a point of strong contention amongst Icelanders for decades now, and is highly politically charged.

Jóhannes also has a special place in his heart for the brown trout, which he describes as his favourite fish to study, and has been focussing his attention on their activities in Lake Thingvallavatn. His passion drives him, and he doesn’t see himself stopping any time soon.

“Now someone could say, ‘Isn’t this enough? How come this guy never stops? Can’t he do something else and just leave the fish there?’,” he says. “Most of my work has been my hobby, it has to be said. But it’s always a nice thing, in whatever you’re studying, that someone can make use of your information. That’s what drives me.”


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