Out of Harm’s Way

grindavík evacuation

I’ve been a photographer and photojournalist for 33 years. It’s an incredible job and I think I’m good at it. Like any job, it can sometimes be difficult, even lousy. But it’s not just a matter of going to a particular spot to take pictures. The magic of the profession lies in capturing connections – […]

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Eagle Empire

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

All cultures have myths of large birds carrying children away. In Greek mythology, Zeus takes on the shape of an eagle to kidnap a young boy. The stories often have the same wording no matter their origin. There are not only legends but also historical records of child-stealing eagles. As a child, I’d heard stories of humongous eagles living on high cliffs. They could fly higher and farther than other birds, and in the stories they also stole and ate children. I never saw these magnificent birds with my own eyes as there were only a handful of them left in the country then and no eagle habitats in the region where I grew up. It wasn’t until I was grown that I caught glimpses of frightening creatures gliding high in the heavens over the islands and skerries of Breiðafjörður fjord, their nesting grounds in western Iceland. The sight filled me with awe and fear-tinged excitement but my wish to see such a bird up close was never fulfilled – until last spring.

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Eggs in a Basket

Krýsuvíkurbjarg egg collection

On a mild spring night in Iceland, when the wind barely ruffles the hair on your head, it’s neither too hot nor too cold, and a soft light shines through the high clouds, driving around the Reykjanes peninsula is a magical experience. The spell is broken as soon as I turn on to the road to Krísuvíkurbjarg, however; the rocky trail to Southwest Iceland’s largest bird cliff is less travelled for a reason. But there’s no turning back now. At the end of the road, I have a meeting with members of the Hafnarfjörður Search and Rescue squad, who have been visiting the cliff every spring for decades. Their goal has always been the same, though their purpose has shifted.

When I finally get to the cliff, two large jeeps have already arrived, with a blur of activity around them. Long lines extend from one of the jeeps standing about 60m (200ft) from the cliff’s edge. At the other end of the line is a rescue squad volunteer in red overalls and a white helmet, with an orange pack around his waist. His name is Símon Halldórsson, and it’s hardly the first time he’s preparing to lower himself over the edge of this cliff. “I was 15 when I went over for the first time, and that was about 30 years ago,” he says as he signals the driver of the jeep that he’s ready to descend.

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Escaped Farmed Salmon Caught in an Icelandic River

The farmed salmon is larger than the wild salmon, wounded by salmon lice, with torn tails and damaged gill flaps.

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1544118445301{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Today Matís, a government-owned, non-profit, independent research company, confirmed by DNA testing that two salmon recently caught in Fífustaðadalsá river in Arnarfjörður fjord were farmed salmon of a Norwegian origin. The fjord is where Iceland’s largest salmon farming company, Arnarlax, keeps their open sea pens and earlier this year, a considerable number of farmed salmon of Norwegian origin escaped their pens. The exact number of the escaped fish couldn’t be established. The salmon caught in the small  Fífustaðadalsá were female and ready to spawn, which could have had devastating consequences for the wild salmon stock in the river.

Female fish about to spawn

Biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson has been monitoring fish stocks of three small rivers in Ketildalir valley by Arnarfjörður fjord for four years. The wild stocks in these rivers are very small, which makes it easy to spot any changes. Jóhannes caught every fish in the Fífustaðadalsá river with dip nets, measured, and tagged them, before releasing them. The native spawning stock consisted of twenty salmon and their spawning season was almost over. But in the river, they also caught the two large female fish that looked markedly different. They had large wounds caused by salmon lice, damaged fins and gill flaps, and torn tails: typical characteristics of farmed salmon. Their origin was later confirmed by DNA tests.

“Four farmed salmon have been caught in Icelandic fishing rivers this year. These two make for a marked increase and they are the first confirmed examples of mature farmed salmon about to spawn in an Icelandic river. I think we caught them in the eleventh hour. One would have spawned in a matter of hours and the other in a few days,” Jóhannes says.

Native wild salmon under threat

Asked about what’s at stake if farmed salmon spawn in an Icelandic river, Jóhannes points to Norway as an example. Wild Norwegian salmon is struggling, even though their farmed salmon is a Norwegian stock. “Each river has a special stock of salmon, that has adapted to the environment and evolved for thousands of years, each stock differing slightly in when it migrates to the sea, how long it stays there, how it spawns, how it’s built to jump waterfalls and so on. When you mix foreign DNA into the gene pool the damage is done. The adaptation might disappear, and the worst-case scenario is that the stock goes extinct.”

Jóhannes says there’s even more risk involved. “Farmed salmon spawns later than wild salmon and when doing so can dig up their eggs and replace them with its own, destroying the eggs laid out earlier by native salmon.”

A more detailed interview with Jóhannes can be found in the Dec-Jan issue of Iceland Review, out now. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][mk_gallery images=”107304,107300,107296,107298″ column=”2″ image_size=”full” hover_scenarios=”none”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Faces of the Earth

Ragnar Axelsson

Ragnar Axelsson is on a mission. The best-known photographer in Iceland has for decades pointed his camera at disappearing culture and documented the life of the people of the Arctic. His earlier books have revolved around people living in close proximity to nature. This time, he’s doing something different – a book on glaciers, nearly […]

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Falco Rusticolus

Gyrfalcon researcher Ólafur Nielsen

“The gyrfalcon’s whole life revolves around the ptarmigan,” ornithologist Ólafur Nielsen tells me as I sit in the back of his pickup truck. We’re navigating a trail through spiky black lava in the northeast on the longest day of the year. At his side is his son and namesake, Ólafur Nielsen Junior, known as Óli to distinguish him from his father. He’s been accompanying his father on his falcon trips since he was 10 years old and can’t imagine a summer without them. In order to get to follow the father-son duo on their trip for a day, I had to apply for a special permit from the Environment Agency of Iceland, months in advance. The purpose of our trip is to visit two or three gyrfalcon nests to mark and measure the nestlings. Even approaching gyrfalcon nests in Iceland is illegal, and only a few researchers and scientists are exempted. Ólafur is one of Iceland’s most notable falcon scholars.

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