The Rif Field Station is located in Raufarhöfn, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of Melrakkaslétta and the northernmost village in Iceland, located just south of the Arctic Circle. Only the Grímsey Island is further north. Raufarhöfn is not only located in a fragile environment but is also very fragile socioeconomically.
The village, with its great natural harbour, was built up around fisheries. During the first fifteen years after the Second World War herring fisheries were slack, but a new boom started in the early 1960s. Herring fisheries were at their peak in the 1960s, bringing not only many residents to the village but also large numbers of temporary workers. This lasted until 1968 when the herring stocks collapsed.
The population of Raufarhöfn reached a maximum of 600 inhabitants in the 1980’s, but with the collapse of the herring stock these days have passed and Raufarhöfn is now a quiet little fishing village with about 180 inhabitants, struggling for its survival. Even so, all the necessary services are in place, and the village has a kindergarten and elementary school for children up to 16 years of age.
Although the main occupations still revolve around fishing and small scale services, tourism is increasing in the area as more tourist operators see the area’s uniqueness as an opportunity for nature-based tourism, especially bird watching. Tourism built upon bird watching has been increasing in Iceland and northeast Iceland is very suitable for this kind of tourism. In recent years a cooperative project run by tourist operators, organisations and individuals in the northeast has promoted bird watching and birding tourism in the region under the name of Birding trail Northeast Iceland.
In Melrakkaslétta, sheep farming was practised for centuries along the northern coast, along with some small scale fishing by farmers, both at sea and on freshwater lakes. With its large eider colonies, eider down was also often collected in the area, and still is to some extent. Farmers also benefitted from the large amount of driftwood that washed up on the northern coast. Today most of the farms have been abandoned but some are still used as summer houses.
The area’s arctic and subarctic nature, its harsh environment and abandoned farms are likely to become an increasing attraction for future tourists in the area. It’s important that all tourism development and infrastructure in the area will not cause any threat to its fragile environment.