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Fiskibarinn: Running a Fish Bar on a Remote Island

“Tourists love lobster soup.”

I guess it’s true; I certainly felt a gut-level response when I walked past this adorable little restaurant, just a couple of blocks off the ferry in Vestmannaeyjar. It was cold, rainy, and the road was covered in black ice, the sidewalks no better off. The sun was low at 2pm in the afternoon.

Andrew-Hill-02-15-16-IMG_2953After walking around some of the lava flow that engulfed much of town in 1973, reading the history of the island and its population and fishing fleet, and generally rubbing my hands together to fight off the numb, a bowl of creamy richness sounded like just the ticket. The Fiskibarinn sign outside advertised lobster soup and fish and chips, and I was all anticipation.

Much to my disappointment, when I inquired inside, Jonas, the co-owner and chef, informed me it was not in season. “Typically, we serve it every day in the summer months; tourists love lobster soup. But we don’t get any this time of year.” I paused for a second. “Tourists or lobsters?” He allowed as how winter on Vestmannaeyjar, with the tumultuous 2+ hour ferry ride from Þorlákshöfn, was not a recipe for a lot of walk-ins. In the summer, it gets much better when the ferry comes straight from Landeyjahöfn (40 minutes), but the ash from the volcano has clogged that port for the last 4 winters, and the higher powers are still trying to figure out how to fix it.

“Last winter, I really wondered whether we’d made the wrong decision to open this business. We had days at a time with no ferry coming in, and that was really hard.” Jonas opened this ‘Fish Bar’ with his parter (and fiancée) Saeunn Erna about three years ago, and they’ve managed to keep it afloat through some tough times. The Icelandic landscape has changed radically with recent volcanic eruptions, which in turn has attracted tourists, and in the winter, redirected tourists to a longer ferry ride. Overall, the growth in tourism has been described by many as a ‘gold rush’, and so many businesses are making the best of it while the growth continues.

I asked about how Climate Change has affected the fish that comes in daily on boats that land across the street. “Well, there’s been an increase in the cod population, which is very good. Also, the temperature change in the water has brought in mackerel, which we never used to see a few years ago.” I pointed out that it seems that the change in the ocean around Iceland seems to actually be good for business, and Jonas shrugged a bit. “It’s different. I don’t know if it’s good or bad.”

I had asked a few other people in the fishing industry about Climate Change and the fish population, and the story was the same. Cod populations were up, and a few new species, specifically mackerel, were making their way to the supermarket shelves alongside the cod. Overall, there was a sense I got that the industry was riding the changes fairly smoothly, and overall, fishing is having a good year in Iceland. I could not get a sense as to whether the changes in acidity of the water were having a notable impact on either fish populations or on the industry itself, although one naturalist pointed out to me that people would not worry about it until they felt it in their wallets. So for that, we may just have to wait.

Andrew-Hill-02-15-16-IMG_8757Jonas introduced me that afternoon to Saltwater Catfish, which pretty much blew me away. It was flavorful and buttery, not unlike its freshwater counterpart in the Southern US. He’d marinated it in a mango sauce of his own creation, and he served it in the pan, along side colored rice and little Icelandic potatoes. While I ate, the sole customer in at that hour, I asked them about when they planned to get married. They both laughed; “We’ve been engaged for a few years, and we still haven’t set a date.”

When I pointed out that engaged life and working together seem to suit them, Jonas told me their secret. They only argue on Tuesdays. “Only on Tuesdays?” I shook my head. “That’s right,” Jonas nodded. The beauty of that, he confided, “if she gets angry at me on Wednesday, by the next week she’s usually forgotten.” That had all three of us chuckling. But as I walked away, I thought that seemed like a very sensible way to handle things. Stick together through thick and thin, and save the bad stuff for one day a week. Life’s too short to do otherwise, isn’t it?

Honestly, that afternoon walk and the visit to Fiskibarrin alone would have made my Vestmannaeyjar adventure worthwhile. But there were other sights to see and people to meet. Still, I can’t wait to come back and try the lobster soup. I’ll just make sure I don’t come on a Tuesday.


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