Iceland and Faroe Islands mackerel dispute with EU and Norway

By Alëx Elliott, IceNews editor: It has been a long time since I wrote an editorial column. They were a regular feature at the height of the banking crisis and always stimulated good debate. There are a few ongoing news stories that have been bothering me lately and today I’d like to rant about just one of them.

The ongoing mackerel fishing conflict, between the EU and Norway on one side and Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the other, has turned into a messy affair which is generating an unnecessary amount of bad blood and nationalism on all sides. It has left a decidedly fishy taste in my mouth. Pun intended.

The story goes that Iceland wanted to catch mackerel for years and had been pushing hard to be allowed to participate in joint quota setting meetings between Norway, the Faroes and the EU, but had been persistently denied access. But now, with warming seas, more and more of the valuable and abundant little fish have been coming into Icelandic and Faroese territorial waters every year and the two governments finally snapped last year and set huge unilateral quotas for the fish — outcasting the Faroes from its old partners.

It has regularly been reported since then that the total Northeast Atlantic catch is now unsustainable and that the four parties need to agree new quotas as soon as possible to avoid damaging the size of the previously-healthy mackerel stock. This is a sentiment I totally agree with.

What annoys me, however, is the (particularly Scottish and Norwegian) assertion that the Faroese and Icelanders are acting like pirates and plundering Europe’s mackerel. This is simply untrue and the EU should really think more about its own fishing record before criticising Iceland’s quotas, which are admired the world over. If the Icelandic marine research institute thinks present day mackerel quotas are sustainable, their track record would cause me to err on the side of believing them. But, forgive me, I do not want to reduce this to pro-Iceland nationalistic rhetoric.

The fact is that the EU and Norway were too slow to react. The changes taking place in the sea are happening at lightning speed and Iceland’s other sealife cannot afford to bear the brunt of Icelandic fishing at the same time as mackerel move in in droves and are not touched by humans.

(but rather using it as bait and to make fish oil and meal for animal feed and fertiliser). This is indeed scandalous; but there is good reason for the situation and it is also changing fast.

Icelanders never used to eat mackerel. It barely existed in the country before the millennium and the tiny catches the national fleet landed were not worth exporting. Now, however, the export market is very much worth exploiting and Icelanders have begun to eat the fish. This year virtually all the mackerel caught will be eaten by people.

And that massive and sudden change has impacts for other species too. makes the very valid point that mackerel are now found all around Iceland: “According to a joint Norwegian/Faroese/Icelandic survey in 2010, over 1m tonnes of mackerel – an estimated 23 percent of the stock – migrated into Icelandic waters during the feeding season. The Marine Research Institute in Iceland has estimated that the mackerel’s weight gain is almost 60 percent during the feeding season in Icelandic waters. This has an impact on other fish stocks and the Icelandic marine ecosystem as a whole, and must be taken into account,” he writes.

A whole new fish species cannot help but impact its new ecosystem and will probably lessen Icelandic stocks of sand eel, capelin and herring — and negative impacts are already being noticed.

A well-managed mackerel fishery could, on the other hand, serve to provide more food for increasing cod stocks.

Iceland relies on its fish and the total value of its catch is extremely important to the national economy; but recent decades have allowed the country to prove to the world that it cares about the future and is serious about managing its fishing responsibly. This should also come to apply to mackerel; but the toxic atmosphere of rhetoric on all sides is hindering this process for now and must come to an end right away.

As an illustration, I leave you with news that , because the two countries’ fish is not of high enough quality on the world market. I am no mackerel export expert, but this strikes me as nonsense. Iceland is a world leader in the processing and export of fresh and frozen fish all over the world and its products often cost more because of their superior quality. If mackerel are migrating to Iceland (some of them, at least, from Norway) in great numbers every summer to put on 60 percent weight in the rich waters, why would they be of inferior quality once they reach the market?

As a final, final thought I would iterate that Iceland and the Faroes bear as much responsibility as the other sides for making a good deal happen. Small-nation-victim-tactics will not wash. This is a meeting of four fishing superpowers and nothing short of reasoned, accommodating professionalism will do from all involved.

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