Every first Sunday in June Iceland celebrates Sjómannadagurinn or Fishermen‘s Day in honour of the brave people who have worked hard to support Iceland‘s main industry and lifeline.
Most towns in Iceland were founded around the fishing industry and many of them remain fishing towns today. For centuries, fish has been the nation‘s main export and today Iceland is one of the leading fishing nations in the world with 1.2 % of the world‘s total catch. Iceland is also at the forefront of the technological advances in the industry, continually introducing safer and more environmentally friendly equipment both on land and sea.
However, fishing wasn’t always a safe business to be in. Back in the day, fishermen had to go out in all kinds of weather on open rowboats with nets and many of them did not return to shore. Fishermen’s Day was first celebrated in Reykjavík and Ísafjörður in the Westfjords in 1938. From then on special fishermen’s masses were held in churches before ships went back out to sea after the winter and in 1987 the day was made a public holiday by law and became one of Iceland’s 11 flag days. Since it is now a public holiday that means that all ships are ashore for the day, allowing fishermen to celebrate with their families. The day is meant to foster the ties between fishermen and to introduce the fishing industry to the public.
To honour these men and women, most towns will have a town-wide celebration with all sorts of family entertainment where children and adults can come and learn about the mysteries of the ocean, and maybe have a hot dog or two. It is common for people involved in the fishing industry to give speeches and traditional sea shanties are played. It is also customary to remember those whose lives where claimed by the sea.
In Reykjavík the celebration has been expanded over the whole weekend, known as the Festival of the Sea. The festival takes place at the old harbour, which has become a vibrant neighbourhood in Reykjavík, full of restaurants, artisan shops, art galleries and other businesses. The festivities offer something for the whole family. My favourite as a child was always the Ugly Fish Display where you can see all the different types of strange sea creatures accidentally caught in the trawlers’ nets. You can also board different types of boats to learn about the realities of the long days on sea. One year there was even a fully inflated life boat inside one of the fishing plants where I patiently sat and waited to be rescued, refusing to let other children enter, proving that I probably wouldn’t be very good at sea. There are also musical acts, food tastings and this year, the reinstatement of the famous seas-side pillow fight where grown men try to knock each other off a plank and into the harbour using only fluffy pillows.
Towns all over Iceland will offer bouncy castles, angling competitions, boat races and concerts and a lot of places will cap off the day with a big dance involving the whole community. So no matter where you are in the country you shouldn’t miss out on Fishermen’s Day celebrations.
If you are interested learning more about Iceland’s unique fishing history, try to visit the Herring Era Museum situated in the charming town of Siglufjordur. This museum is both Iceland’s largest maritime museum and the only Icelandic museum to win the European Museum Award.