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How Norway’s Fjords Are Powering a Sustainability Revolution

DEPARTURES travels to Scandinavia to learn about the next wave in aquaculture and gastro-tourism.

Traveling Norway’s jagged and wild Western Coastline is like slipping in between the pages of a treasured old National Geographic.

Three and half hours north of Bergen, the country’s second largest city, the Sognefjord—or, the “King of the Fjords”—is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway and possibly its most stunning. Lined with rolling green hills, the shoreline is dotted by tiny brick-red farmhouses, with little changing even as the former agrarian nation, made rich by oil and gas, adapts to its new role as a wealthy, global superpower. Far from the sleek museums of Bergen and the financial hub of Oslo, life along the Sognefjord is still mainly powered by the fjords. But it’s these same ancient waterways that now fuel a radical innovation in the country’s top industry. At the on-shore halibut farm Sogn Aqua, a vibrant community of scientists, farmers, and change-makers, supported by a Michelin-endorsed chef and a world-renowned architect, are attempting to offer a solution to the global overfishing crisis, providing a template for the next century in Norwegian fishing. In the process, they offer an ambitious vision of the future of gastro-tourism in Scandinavia.

With one of the longest natural coastlines in the world, Norway’s fishing industry is as vital to the national economy as coal once was to America. While salmon and herring remain the most globally popular fish, it’s the stoic Halibut that holds a special place in the Norwegian imagination. A bottom dweller that thrives in extreme cold, it has an ethereal, almost alien-like quality; flat and dark like a flounder, when it glides on water it gives the impression of being a sentient kite. At its largest, 6 feet, it’s been nicknamed “the barn door” and in Medieval times was seen as the personification of Balder, the Norse god of light, happiness and beauty, and given as a wedding gift to demonstrate wealth and generosity. It’s also one of the most sustainable fish in the world to breed.

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Last May, we visited Sogn-Aqua to meet Arne Brekke, a third-generation fish farmer, and his business partner, Ole-Kristian Hess-Erga, a microbiologist. Pioneering a new form of fish farming that provides high aeration and oxygenation of water, pumped straight from the crystal-clear fjords some 100 meters down into a land-based pen, the pair are able to control every aspect of breeding conditions, from temperature to what the fish are fed (alternative plant-based feeds) to how waste is disposed of—after removing pollutants, water is funneled back into the fjord. This has yielded both larger and healthier fish, and in just a decade they have successfully created a sustainable fishery that provides 800 tons of production a year and is 95% recyclable and waste free. Under the name Glitne, the brand provides blue ribbon, sashimi-grade snow-white halibut to kitchens throughout Scandinavia and the U.S., starting with Shelsky's in Brooklyn. Ultimately, the pair hopes that the underappreciated halibut will someday replace wild halibut, tuna, and other more resource-intensive or imperiled fish on our dinner tables.

Glitne’s success is due in no small part to former TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz and her husband, Mike Velings, dual founders of Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund based in the Netherlands that boosts sustainable farms and fosters positive social and environmental change. I recently met them at Bergen’s Sott + Salt, a rustic bistro in Bergen’s historic wharf district and one of the first restaurants to carry Glitne. “It’s a long-term, capital-intensive endeavor and an inclination towards long-term sustainability,” says Velings, elaborating on how investment in sustainable fishing practices, while not exactly glamorous or yielding in quick returns, is vital to enacting much-needed global change. The oceans are already dangerously overfished, with scientists predicting not only a collapse of the aquaculture industry but also that we may soon be unable to feed the 9.8 billion global citizens anticipated by 2050. As the recent U.N. climate report recently explained, climate change will only exacerbate this already dire issue. The Atlantic’s James Hamblin predicted in 2017 that if everyone on earth gave up eating cows, which require 9 kilograms of feed and thousands of gallons of water to raise, we would come close to meeting the 2020 greenhouse-gas emission goals pledged by President Barack Obama in 2009, even if nothing else about our way of life or infrastructure were changed. To farm fish, a healthy and protein-rich alternative, it only requires a fraction of these resources—making the switch to a pescatarian-based diet almost a moral imperative.

Tory Williams

But not all fish farms have a green halo. Many utilize pesticides, create breeding grounds rife with disease, and disrupt the natural population—with many unwilling to spend the funds necessary to develop more sustainable options. Velings and Novograd hope that if they can provide successful case studies on financially remunerative sustainability initiatives, others will follow. “Norway is setting an example,” Novograd said, alluding to Norway’s important role as the world’s second-largest exporter of fish and its strict quality control. “They’re showing new possibilities, ways of doing business and of producing food in a resource-efficient, low-footprint, healthy and affordable way.” In addition to Norway, Aqua-Spark has invested in farms in Iceland, Mozambique, Indonesia, and The Netherlands (among others) and is an investor in Love the Wild, a U.S.-based aquaculture initiative stocked at Whole Foods. Novogratz cites chefs like Jamie Oliver and Blue Hill Farm’s Dan Barber, whom she previously worked with at TED, as early adopters to sustainable aquaculture, but asserts that attitudes in the kitchen still need to change. “The old romantic idea of taking your fish off the hook and bringing it right to the table has to be reimagined. We have billions of people expected to join the planet, how are going to create a better system that’s affordable and accessible?"

Tory Williams

Other leaders in the hospitality and dining industry are also beginning to think more inventively about sustainable aquaculture. Last June, for the third year in a row, Relais & Châteaux held its “Exquisite Fish” celebration—a UN-recognized aquaculture initiative and "zero-waste dinner" run in tandem with World Oceans Day and in partnership with Ethic Ocean. Philippe Gombert, President of the brand, has made aquaculture a year-round priority, encouraging all member hotels to promote sustainable seafood in each of their restaurants. “Everyone is aware of the stakes and the role they can play,” he told DEPARTURES, explaining that it is also now mandatory to inform customers that the fish on their menu has been ethically sourced, and why certain vulnerable species are absent. In addition, in 2018 Relais & Châteaux teamed up with Bloom to combat electrofishing, one of the worst practices in the industry.

Norwegian-born, New York-trained chef Christopher Haatuft got his start in the kitchens of Blue Stone Farms and Per Se before moving back to Bergen five years ago to open his Michelin-starred restaurant and cocktail bar, Lysverket. Located within the museum district, it serves a fresh take on locally sourced Norwegian foods like langoustine and mackerel. Contrary to popular imagination, Scandinavian cuisine wasn’t always so in-demand, particularly Western Norway’s—a product of a rainy climate and inhospitable rocky terrain. “Our cuisine here is based on being dirt poor and trying to survive winter. So food, historically, is not salted, just dried.” A trip to the historic Bergen Fish Market proves this staple is still very much still a part of the daily culture—the tourism board, just a stone’s throw away, sits above its own fish market and eatery. “If you want to have an ambitious restaurant you have to use the best ingredients. Here that’s seafood,” says Haatuft. To gather quality ingredients, he’s had to school himself on the aquaculture community, and the scourges of traditionally-farmed fish—mainly sea lice. More and more he observed a vital need for sustainability and came across Glitne. “Restaurants have an audience, an obligation to be good practitioners of aquaculture and lift up others that are practicing similar,” says Haatuft, who explained that he also sources his salmon from a “farm in a mountain that used to be a hydro plant” and his scallops and oysters from third and fourth generation fisherman. He laments that sustainable aquaculture, though necessary, is not particularly glamorous or appealing to foodies, or even travel journalists. “A fish farm doesn’t Instagram well,” he jokes. “ It’s as simple as that. If they [fish farms] were beautiful, things might be different.”

Tory Williams

This may be about to change. Still in its earliest stages, he hopes to build an experiential farm-to-table restaurant at one of Glitne's outposts with the help of Todd Saunders, the celebrated designer behind the Fogo Island Arts complex. Saunder’s projects, widely acclaimed for utilizing natural beauty rather than fighting against or flattening it, are the product of his rural Canadian childhood. “I grew up in Newfoundland, which looks a bit like Norway,” he says, explaining how a brief visit 20 years ago led to a permanent move to Scandinavia. Glitne and Haatuft came to Sanderson with the idea of creating something of a fish tasting room and organic restaurant, offering a similar experience to flights at breweries or truffle tastings at farms across Southern Europe. “I was fascinated. It was weird and interesting,” he explained. What ultimately swayed him was his desire to see the Norwegian fishing economy thrive, and the lessons of his childhood. “Growing up, the codfish industry stocked half the province. When it left, the whole economy left.” He saw an opportunity to support his adopted home while reimagining the possibilities of gastro-tourism. The plans are still in the works, but this new structure will sit at the foot of the fjords and look something like an apple orchard, also hosting visiting chefs and dining experts. With culinary tours exploding in popularity, this would seem the perfect time for the project. Plans are still ongoing, the team hasn’t ruled out the idea of launching an adjacent boutique hotel, but for now, it will provide a resource center where those interested in aquaculture can intern, study and work.

Tory Williams

As climate change, population boom, and overfishing become hot(ter) button issues for both our collective consciousness and our shopping carts, sustainable agriculture will need to evolve, and that may also include our diets. For Scandinavia, which has always relied on a fish-based diet, this will be relatively easy, but for the rest of the world, we may have to look to the lessons of the fjords for a more sustainable path forward. And, potentially in the near future, a new type of destination vacation.