Although there are large areas of shallow water elsewhere in Europe, the Vega archipelago differs considerably from these. While much of the area around Vega has a hard bottom with a lush growth of algae (seaweeds) interspsersed with areas of light, fine-grained shell sand, other shallow waters in Europe are dominated by a grey-brown soft bottom, less clear water and lower fertility. The same area at Vega has strong currents, the most noticeable being tidal currents flowing east-west. With a tidal range of 1.5 - 2 metres, large volumes of water have to be transported through the extensive archipelago twice a day. This results in a good exchange of water, which is therefore clean and rich in nutrients. The area has such a large abundance of species because Vega is in a climatic zone where both northern and southern species can thrive. This richness of species and the clear water make the area a paradise for divers.
The kelp forest is recovering
Kelp forest used to cover a significant part of the shallow seabed around Vega, and is ranked among the most productive habitats on Earth.
Observations by fishermen, scientists and kelp trawlermen suggest that the entire area around Vega had dense kelp forest until 1970, when devastating changes took place. Within a few years, northern sea urchins, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, multiplied dramatically. They began to graze the kelp forest and have since devoured it extensively around Vega and in the rest of northern Norway. This caused a dramatic decline in the fisheries, too. However, research in the last couple of years suggests that the kelp forest is beginning to recover, and the local fish stocks also seem to be increasing.
The devastating grazing has had major consequences for the local fishermen. According to calculations made by Hartvig Christie at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), the reduced stock of coastal cod led to an estimated loss of income of around NOK 15 million per year in Vega. According to his calculations, the ravaged kelp forests in northern Norway are resulting in a loss in production equivalent to 300 000 - 400 000 tonnes of fish each year. This is more than the entire Norwegian cod quota. However, efforts are being made to get the industry onto its feet again. Vega fishermen have bought the fish landing and processing plant and, together with a commercial company and the municipal authority, they are planning a new harbour for fishing boats. The World Heritage Foundation is also campaigning for an action plan for the fisheries, like that prepared to safeguard the cultural landscape.
Photo: Hartvig Christie