Pay a winter visit to Norway’s remote Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, and it’s impossible to miss the rows of headless fish carcasses hanging from wooden racks to dry. Follow the snaking two-lane road from village to village and you’ll arrive at the dock of H. Sverdrup AS fish factory in a town called Reine. When I visited, a group of kids with sharp knives and bloody smocks stood huddled together for warmth. School had just ended, and they were waiting for more cod heads to arrive.
The kids are known as tungeskjaererne, or tongue cutters. It was early March 2020, the middle of fishing season, when Arctic cod known as skrei migrate to the Norwegian coast to spawn. Cod tongue, tender and jellylike, is a local delicacy. “The best meat of the fish,” said Jakob Arctander, a local fish exporter. “It’s got the consistency of filet mignon.”
The job makes selling Girl Scout cookies or running a lemonade stand look like child’s play.
The fishing village of Reine in the Lofoten Islands. The archipelago was settled around the tenth century by Vikings, who were drawn by plentiful cod.
For as long as anybody can remember, tungeskjaererne have been responsible for the local cod tongue trade, even as fish factories give up the money they would otherwise get from the tongues by donating the fish heads to children and teenagers. The tradition introduces young people to the fishing industry, and teaching them the value of entrepreneurship and hard work seems to matter more than making an extra kroner or two. “Fishing is the most important thing that we have here,” said Arctander, who sometimes let his 6-year-old son stay up until midnight cutting tongues. “Fisheries will always be our main source of work.”
The job makes selling Girl Scout cookies or running a lemonade stand look like child’s play. Arctander knows tungeskjaererne who have made more than $11,000 in a single season. “I haven’t thought of anything else in the world where kids can make so much money,” he said.
Sea gulls swarmed overhead as a small fishing boat approached the dock. The haul was brought inside the factory, and the sound of scraping metal signaled that workers had fed the fish into a processor to slice off the heads. The bodies would be salted, frozen or dried as stockfish—unsalted fish that’s hung for months in the open air to dry—and then exported for food. The heads were collected in large bins, to be moved outside for the kids.