The fishwives of Stykkisholmur
World View / /
Erla Gudrunardottir (3rd from right) and her all-woman team from Marz Seafood
celanders are full of surprises. They see elves and trolls at work behind every volcanic rock and everyone still takes them seriously. They endured a spectacular banking crash and emerged stronger than ever. Equivalent in population terms to a medium-sized town, Iceland still managed to knock England – yes, England, the home of football – out of the last European Championship. “We were so proud,” says Erla Gudrunardottir.
Making something impressive out of virtually nothing is one subject that Gudrunardottir knows all about. When she first started her seafood business in 2003, all she had aside from a healthy dose of self-confidence was a telephone and an old computer. Today, Marz Seafood ships approximately 12,000 tonnes of fish all over the world every year. There are larger fish traders in Iceland but for Gudrunardottir, size isn’t everything. For her, it’s all about quality. “We are the Rolls Royce of local traders. That will have to do.” But the fact that the occupants of this particular Rolls Royce are all women is rather unusual, even in Iceland. Finance, accounts, marketing, sales, logistics – at Marz, women take care of it all.
Marz Seafood – an all-woman team
“It wasn’t planned that way,” says Gudrunardottir. “It just happened.” In the early days she hired a man fresh out of university but he left after a year and all the new additions since then have been women. “There’s a different dynamic in an all-woman team,” says Gudrunardottir. “We share everything, the highs and the lows. And if I ever have a bad day and need a hug, there’s someone to give me one. We are a family.”
That is not always a good thing, of course – everyone knows families they certainly wouldn’t want to be born into. But Erla Gudrunardottir was able to choose her “family members”, and anyone who gets to know the Marz family soon realizes she has quite a knack for it. “A great company,” says Chris Petersen. “Extremely well managed, the perfect customer for us.”
Petersen, a risk underwriter with credit insurer Euler Hermes, is responsible for anything do with fishing and the sea in northern Europe, and thus for Marz Seafood too. “We give companies the certainty they need for their transactions,” he says. Petersen’s face might be familiar to many in the Allianz Group, of which Euler Hermes is a part, from the posters that advertised the Allianz World Run this summer. And because the photo shoot went so well, the 38-year-old Dane was also roped in to model the Allianz Collection.
In the fjord off Stykkisholmur, the crew of the “Hannes Andresson” takes a close look at the scallop beds // Sigidur Agustsson (right) and Chris Petersen: “Nature has taught us a lesson”
Petersen travels from Copenhagen to Iceland once or twice a year to talk with customers about protecting planned deliveries, business with new trading partners and geopolitical developments that could affect trade in particular parts of the world. When sanctions were imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia retaliated by closing its borders to western imports, Euler Hermes customers were among those affected. “We had to reroute quite a few shipments and find buyers in other countries at short notice,” explains Petersen. “Those were hectic weeks for all of us.”
This is the first time that Petersen has visited Stykkisholmur, and the first time that he has worked with an all-woman company. But business isn’t the first item on the agenda today: Petersen mentioned that he is due to become a father in January. Men react to news like that with a pat on the back and a can of beer: Congratulations, Petersen. Respect! The women from Marz start to discuss the pros and cons of various makes of strollers. “We talk about different things than men,” says Erla Gudrunardottir.
The fish trade – the fraudsters cast their nets
Since Petersen joined Euler Hermes in 2010, he has become a specialist in sea creatures and fishing. He has even set up his own “fish calendar” showing when the fishing season starts for which species and when deliveries are made to buyers. “So we also know exactly when we are facing risks,” explains Petersen, an economist by education.
There are others who know these cycles too, however. On a number of occasions fraudsters targeted Marz Seafood using sophisticated methods in an attempt to divert shipments of fish and payments. The sums at stake are significant: a shipment brings in up to half a million US dollars. In one case, experts hacked into the system of one of Marz’s customers in Turkey, intercepted the invoices, and replaced Marz’s bank details with their own. The payment was made – and the money was lost. To begin with, at least.
Stykkisholmur harbor. In 2015, Icelandic ships’ crews caught 1.3 million tons of fish
When Marz still had not been paid four days after issuing their invoice, they followed up with the Turkish customer and the fraud was discovered. The customer then had to chase their money with help from Interpol. They were successful on this occasion – after passing through a number of places, a large part of the money had ended up in a bank in Poland, where it was seized. “You really have to be on your guard in this business,” says Erla Gudrunardottir. “The sophistication the fraudsters operate with is incredible.”
At the moment she is shipping cod, mackerel... and scallops. Marz Seafood is currently the only company in Iceland to sell this particular delicacy, and Gudrunardottir’s husband Sigurdur Agustsson is one of the few people permitted to fish for it. The Icelandic government imposed a fishing ban in 2004 after stocks collapsed dramatically. Since then, Agustsson’s ship, the Hannes Andresson, equipped with underwater cameras and with the blessing of the Icelandic Marine Institute, regularly heads out to the scallop beds to check how they are doing. “They are recovering slowly,” he says.
Agustsson’s crew is now permitted to take around 700 tons per year – nowhere near the 10,000 tons a year of the days when Stykkisholmur was Iceland’s scallop capital, but it’s a start. “Scallops were the backbone of the local economy for thirty years,” says Agustsson. “Which is why the fishing ban hit the area so hard.” The population of Stykkisholmur fell by a quarter following the ban.
Fishing – second largest contributor to the Icelandic economy
It would be hard to imagine Iceland without fishing. Since the 12th century, the fortunes of this Viking nation have hung at the end of a fishing line. Alongside world-class handball trainers and the “Icelandic clap” of its football fans, fish is today one of this Atlantic nation’s top exports. The fishing industry is responsible for a good quarter of the country’s GDP and is the second largest contributor to the national economy after tourism. Though it has only 330,000 inhabitants, with an annual catch of 1.3 million tonnes, Iceland is one of the world’s leading fishing nations.
It is just after seven on a cool September morning in Stykkisholmur. Chris Petersen is going down to the harbor, where the Hannes Andresson is moored. Later the ship will set off to take a close look at the scallop beds in the fjord. Petersen has the astonishing ability to engage even the surliest seaman in conversation shortly after seven in the morning, and indeed he can soon be seen speculating animatedly with the crew and owner of the Hannes Andresson about the return of the scallop. Even though this would be a blessing for Stykkisholmur’s fishing community and its 1100-strong population, the village is no longer dependent on scallops. “We have reinvented ourselves over the last few years,” says Sigurdur Agustsson. “Nature has taught us a lesson.”
And in Iceland, people still listen to it.