Iceland’s Sustainable Fisheries

Iceland is leading in the area of sustainable fishing. Photo: Hilmir Berg

The first settlers brought their seafaring know-how to Iceland when they sailed over from what is now Scandinavia. This history and tradition continues to be a huge source of national pride, for having made it with the odds pretty heavily stacked against them.

The experience with the herring and the collapse of the stock in the late 1960s taught Iceland, Icelanders and of course Icelandic policymakers a very important lesson: if the prosperity of the nation is to be guaranteed, then the long-term survival of the fish stocks (all fish stocks) must also be guaranteed.

“Sustainable fishing is fundamental. I want to be a fisherman tomorrow and for the next generations to be able to take over. This is our livelihood, so it’s important to fish the right quantity.”
Ólafur Óskarsson, captain of boat Jóhanna Gísladóttir

Read all about Iceland’s herring adventure here!

A Sustainable Fishing Nation
Iceland has been a sustainable fishing nation for decades now, and is leading in this area. Many species that are considered threatened or vulnerable by the International Conservation Union (IUCN) are actually in much better health in Icelandic water than elsewhere, such as cod and haddock.

The seafood industry in Iceland is considered a base industry. Securing many jobs and giving rise to many suböindustries.
Photo: Hilmir Berg

Fisheries: A Base Industry
The Fishing industry is one of the key industries in Iceland, and directly employs around 8,000 people, contributing 11% to GDP directly, and 25% allowing for indirect ocean sector benefits. In 2015 the export production of marine products overall, amounted to ISK 265 billion (€ 1.8 billion), 8% than the year before and 3% decrease with in overall quantity. The total fishing fleet is made up of 1,663 fishing ships in Iceland (2015), of which 758 are machine ships and 46 trawlers.

Read all about the fish of Iceland here!

The seafood industry in Iceland is considered a “base industry”, an industry upon which other industries depend, and giving rise to many sub-industries, start-ups and support networks around the ocean sector.

“We have to prove to the rest of
the world that “the fish can
sing just like a bird”.
Halldór Laxness

So, How Does a Sustainable Fishery Work?
In Iceland, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is decided, then permits for a specified tonnage are issued to the main fishing companies, and they are not to exceed these limits. The maximum total catch size (in tonnes) is decided on a species basis by teams of scientists and economists. Catches are monitored and enforced by the Directorate of Fisheries and supported by the independent Marine Research Institute. Based on the economic and biological models and measurements, the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is decided for each species, and then the Maximum Economic Yield (MEY) is set below the MSY in order to guarantee the environmental and the economic effectiveness of the fisheries.

All catches are recorded as soon as they are landed at any of the 53 ports located around the island.
Photo: Hilmir Berg

Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs)
A company can trade their quota (called an individual transferable quota), which can be traded among boats under certain conditions. All bycatches must be landed and recorded as part of that boat’s quota, discouraging bycatches and encouraging more careful fishing. If the quota has been used up, additional quota must be bought from another boat or company. Each year, 20% of a quota may be carried forward, and 5% of the next year’s quota can be claimed in advance.

All catches are recorded as soon as they are landed at any of the 53 ports around the country or by Icelandic officials aboard. By extension, this also provides data that traces the origins of all of the fish from every catch. All quota changes, catches and landings are posted on the internet, so that all variations can be tracked. This lets the fisherman be guided by the market as much as possible and enhances transparency about the catches.

 Sustainable Practices
The entire ITQ fisheries management system has two goals: guarantee the long term health of the fish stocks and to guarantee to profitability of the industry as a whole.

Not only are there limits to the number of fish that can be fished, sometimes more drastic measures are taken, such as limited specific area of sea that can be fished. Specific areas out to sea are closed, sometimes with a moments notice to allow fish to spawn, allowing regeneration of the stock.

Also, coral and underwater ‘mountains’ are mapped and avoided in order not to damage habitats and to prevent the fishing line from becoming tangled. Large areas can be closed immediately if there are too many small fish in the catch, indicating a young stock. If they are not mature enough to reproduce, there won’t be much of a future.

The port at Bíldudalur – a small town in the west of Iceland.
Photo: Hilmir Berg

Much More Than Just a Fish
The experiences of the past have led the Icelandic fishing industry into a highly successful enterprise, it has one of the most well-managed fisheries in the world. Its success is also due in large part to the fact that Iceland is able to set its own national policy free, free from having to negotiate with other nations about how to manage the space and the resources.

And, as we shall see later in our series, it may have started with fish, but it has become so much more! In recent years, the fisheries industry has given rise to some incredible innovations which nobody would have dreamed possibly only 20 years ago – stay tuned for our next article!

Did you get a chance to take a look at our last article we’re we feature the town of Ísafjörður? Take a look at it here!