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Icelandic cod: carrying the torch for sustainable seafood at the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games

Páll Hreinn Pálsson holding a cod with mountains in the background.
Páll Hreinn Pálsson holding a cod with mountains in the background.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games present a great opportunity to forge positive links between sport and the environment. This year, as part of a commitment to sustainability, 100% of the cod served to athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Village came from Visir, a family-run fishing business in Grindavik, south west Iceland.

Iceland’s people have harnessed the power of this volcanic land and the bounty of its sea to create a wonderful place for both people and nature.

In April, I visited the fishing community catching and processing cod for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and to learn about their journey to secure a sustainable future for their fisheries. Their efforts mean that Icelandic cod can be sold with the blue MSC label – their ticket to Rio 2016.

Icelandic fish, an economic force

Icelandic fishermen have been supplying cod to South America and Europe for generations. Fish even features on their coins, recognition of the deep history of fishing in Iceland and the importance to its economy. 

There’s a common saying in Iceland, “Lífið er saltfiskur” or “Life is salted fish.” Today salted fish accounts for 15-20% of the value of seafood exports from Iceland. Salted cod also has deep cultural roots in Brazil. Cod, particularly “bacalhau” (salted cod) is a traditional festive dish in Brazil. It is eaten at Christmas and during family gatherings, often in a stew with potatoes, or as “bolinhos de bacalhau” (croquettes of salted cod), which were served at Rio 2016.

Fishing: not only a job, a tradition

For the Visir family, fishing is more than a job. It’s a tradition which goes back generations. They’ve built on the sacrifices and lessons of the past to transform themselves into a thoroughly modern businesses.


Visir’s general manager, Pétur Hafsteinn Pálsson, told me how the company was founded as a legacy to his grandfather, Pall Jónsson. Pall and his brother were lost at sea during the Second World War whilst shipping cod to the allied troops in Britain. Whilst the safety of Icelandic fishermen has now improved, the wrecked carcasses of fishing boats line Iceland’s coast as a reminder of the power of the sea.


Healthy stocks, sustainable harvest

Icelandic fishermen have also experienced the impacts of over exploiting the oceans. In the 1960s herring stocks collapsed leading to high unemployment.

The Icelandic government now follows scientific advice, setting catch quotas based on surveys carried out by the Marine Research Institute. We met two of their researchers weighing and measuring Visir’s catch to determine the health of the stock.





Visir’s fishermen are happy to follow the advice of the scientists because they know that it will secure their livelihoods for themselves and generations to come. Thanks to careful management, they now catch more, larger fish in less time, leading to greater efficiencies and lower fuel consumption. 

Data from the fishing vessels feeds directly back to Visir’s processing facility which turns out 500 portions of fish every minute. It’s incredible to see the lines of staff carefully trimming and packing portions of fish. The speed of turn-around and the careful planning means that fresh fish is on its way to markets in Europe in less than 24 hours of arriving on land.

 From ocean to plate

The fish is sold with tracking information linking it back to the boat and day on which it was caught. It’s sold around the world with the blue MSC label – a mark which shows the sustainability and integrity of the fishery from which it came.

To achieve and maintain MSC certification Icelandic cod fisheries are independently assessed to globally recognized standards for sustainable fishing. This includes ensuring that fish stocks remain healthy, minimizing their impact on the marine environment and ensuring careful management systems are in place to ensure fish for the future.

You too can ‘eat like an Olympian’ by looking for seafood with the blue MSC label. That way you can be sure that the seafood you eat today comes from a fishery which is protecting the oceans for tomorrow.

If you’ve worked up an appetite to eat like an Olympian try our recipe for Bolinhos de Bacalhau

This blog post was first featured on National Geographic’s Ocean Views.