Iceland is the Success Story of Sustainable Fishing

fish on dock photo

The soon-to-be-released documentary, The End of the Line, is about the terrible damage to the world's fishing stocks due to overfishing. But we do have one successful model of sustainable fishing: feisty little Iceland.

Famous for its fish and infamous for its collapsing banks, Iceland has become the poster country for developing a quota system for its fishermen which ensures responsible and sustainable fishing and responsible fishing practices. This TreeHugger went to Iceland, as a guest of Waitrose supermarkets and met some of the players in this success story. More on cod, quotas, and the future after the fold.

jan thomsen and halla photo

Iceland is a fishing country and has been forever. Aside from the 5 year blip of incredible affluence due to its banking practices, the small country of 310,000 people has relied on the sea and its major natural resource--the cod grounds--for its income.

Iceland has Fishing Limits

Since 1901 Iceland has had a sea limit around the island which marked off the zone that could be fished by Icelanders alone. It started as 3 miles and by 1976 the exclusive area had expanded to 200 miles. This was done to protect the diminishing fishing stock, particularly cod and haddock.

How Does the Quota System Work

Once the zone was established, the amount of fish that each fisherman could catch had to be regulated too. This was seen as the key to stopping the decline in the cod stocks. By 1995 a workable system of quotas was introduced--the total cod catch was restricted to a maximum of 25% of the estimated stock. Each vessel is allocated a certain share of the total allowable catch of the relevant species. Twice a year, in the autumn and spring, the scientists set the quotas after testing the biomass. They can close down fishing grounds if there is evidence that there are falling stocks. By 2010 Iceland will have its own marine stewardship label which will certify their responsible practices.

We had the chance to talk to Hallfridur Brynjolfsdottir, the Business Manager of Einhamar Seafood EHF, an ecological fish processing plant and Jan Thomsen (right), from Danica Seafood Ltd, the exporters of fish from Iceland for Waitrose. It was a wide-ranging discussion which kept returning to the subject of the newly elected government's views on the quota system and whether Iceland should join the European Union.

Will Iceland Join the European Union

In their view, Iceland will not enter the EU unless it can keep its sovereignty in fishing. It cannot give that up because if they do they will have nothing left. Keeping this means keeping the quota system which supports the fishing industry. Most Icelanders support this position.

New Blood is Needed in the Fishing Industry

The quota system works in Iceland because all the fishermen, the fisheries' owners and the government support it. Before it was "not fashionable to be a fisherman" but since the crash many are returning to the profession. However the fishermen are ageing and new people need to get a start but it is very expensive. Now some of the quota is allocated to villagers to keep the work in the small towns. The new government wants to call back the quota by 5% a year over the next 20 years and give that to new boats. They also want to allow small boats to do free fishing on a daily basis. There is much uncertainty about how this will play out.


The Impact of Climate Change on the Fish

The temperature of the sea water has changed in the past 10 to 15 years and become warmer. Before there were haddock only on the SW coast of the country, now they are all over because they are a warm water fish.

If the size of the fish is too small the area is closed down. There are 40 people in the government who follow fish size. However the fish sizes are increasing and many feel that this is a result of the ocean regenerating as well as the food chain.

Throwing back fish that are not good enough or are dead is not allowed because then they are not counted as part of the quota. Instead they must be brought ashore and given to the government to sell as part of their quota.

Why is Iceland's Fish So Sustainable

Because the country manages the fishing chain entirely by itself they have complete control over how it is carried out. This is what gives Iceland its unique position as it is the only country that does this.

More on Sustainable Fishing
Is This the End of the Line for Fishing

Iceland is the Success Story of Sustainable Fishing
The soon-to-be-released documentary, The End of the Line, is about the terrible damage to the world's fishing stocks due to overfishing. But we do have one successful model of sustainable fishing: feisty little Iceland.

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