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Going Green: All eyes on Iceland

Collapsed economy puts acute pressure on sustainable fisheries

By Lisa Duchene
August 01, 2009

In Iceland, pictures of cod, capelin, crabs and lumpfish adorn the coins. Fish is that important in this small, island country, which is known worldwide as a model of sustainable fisheries management.

But decoration may be the coins' greatest value, as Iceland's economy and currency have crashed. Much now depends on whether Iceland's leaders can stabilize its economy, which will likely mean joining the European Union without further straining fish stocks, especially ailing Atlantic cod.

U.S. seafood buyers rely heavily on Iceland for cod and haddock. U.S. imports of fresh and frozen cod fillets in 2008 totaled about 5.6 million pounds worth more than $20 million. Haddock imports in 2008 totaled more than 11.5 million pounds worth more than $44.6 million.

Iceland's relatively good fisheries management reputation is largely based on its adoption of individual transferable quotas, or ITQs, in the 1970s. Catch shares, a management approach that includes ITQs, are proving an effective management tool. The ITQ system is credited with leading to a profitable Icelandic fleet that is not subsidized. And influential environmental groups recognize Iceland's fishery management achievements.

"Atlantic cod is considered overfished throughout most of its range," says Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. "However, in the Northeast Arctic and Iceland, where bottom longlines and gillnets are used, environmental impacts are less severe. In addition, management is better in this region." MBA's Seafood Watch includes Iceland cod harvested by longline or gillnet, not trawled, as a good alternative.

(Iceland's overall fishery reputation, though, is hardly stellar. The country's fisheries score of 46.8 out of 100 in the 2008 Environmental Performance Index, developed at Yale and Columbia Universities; it also allows whaling in defiance of an international moratorium.)

Now, because of macroeconomic conditions and the economy's increased reliance on banking in recent years, there is more pressure than ever upon Iceland's fisheries.

When the country's three banks, including the seafood client-heavy Glitnir, collapsed last October, so did its economy and government. The International Monetary Fund bailed the country out, but an Icelandic krona is still worth less than a U.S. penny. (Just prior to the collapse, the Icelandic krona fluctuated from 50 to 80 per dollar and slid to 135 per dollar last November. In early July, the krona had recovered slightly to 128 per U.S. dollar.)

The government fell in January after 16 weeks of violent protests. Jóhanna Sigurdardottir - a social democrat who took o ver as prime minister in January and was confirmed in the April elections - promised swift action to join the European Union. The new government has changed the cod harvest policy, upped the cod quota and named a committee to review Iceland's fisheries policy.

ITQs have proven an effective way to divide the harvest, but if officials overestimate the size of the catch, the stocks are doomed, says Dr. Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at New York's Stonybrook University.

In January, Iceland increased the total allowable catch (TAC) of cod from 130,000 to 160,000 tons. The value of the cod catch for the first quarter of 2009 was 13.7 percent higher than during the same period last year.

The change is consistent with Iceland's sustainable fisheries policy, according to a statement from the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, but means rebuilding cod stocks will be a slower process.

The ministry also set the harvest rate at 20 percent of the mature cod population (at least four years old) for the next five years.

That sounds high, says Pikitch, especially in light of 
a recent warning that the country's cod stocks are also fac-
ing collapse.

In May, scientists from the University of Iceland and the Marine Research Institute, which provides scientific research and advice to Icelandic fishery managers, found that one way in which fishing affects 
cod stocks is a "fisheries-induced evolution" in which cod in shallow waters (the most intensely fished) have only 8 percent of the Darwinian fitness, or relative survival rate, of deep-water cod.

Scientists are seeing genetic changes in Icelandic cod comparable to those that preceded the collapse of northern cod off Newfoundland and are advising large no-take reserves, according to the study.

"They did push things a little bit harder than they should have by increasing the quota on the species they hoped to recover," says Pikitch. "I know it's difficult in the face of other economic pressures to hold back and not put additional pressure on a natural resource, but if you don't do it now, you'll pay for it later."

Dr. Sigurgeir Thorgeirsson, permanent secretary of the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, says: "Despite the economic difficulties there is a firm commitment not to give in to this sort of pressure to increase the catch any more. The fundamental issue is sustainable fishing and that should be sharpened, rather than weakened."

To that end, Iceland has asked the International Council for Exploration of the Sea for a scientific review of its new rate, and that request is a good sign, says Pikitch.

Last month Iceland submitted its application for accession to the European Union, a move favored by two-thirds of Icelanders in January polls. But not everyone thinks that is a positive step.

"I certainly hope they don't get sucked into the European Union fisheries policy," says Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington professor specializing in natural resource management and conservation. "One reason they've been reasonably successful is they've managed their fisheries on their own."

Europe's record has been dismal - 90 percent of its stocks are considered overfished. Under Europe's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the EU manages fisheries and fleets of its member states and negotiates agreements that allow vessels from EU states to fish in the waters of other states, according to Robin Churchill, an international law professor at the University of Dundee in Scotland and Daniel Owen, a barrister in Cambridge, U.K., in the EU Common Fisheries Policy: Law and Practice. The EU also regulates marketing and trade of the fish of its member states. The CFP is now under review.

Icelandic officials seem well aware they must somehow preserve their fisheries.

Prime Minister Sigurdardottir this spring predicted Iceland will adopt the euro in four years. "We will defend our resources, our fisheries and agricultural policy," she says.

That will be no small task.

As this all plays out, what should sustainability-minded U.S. buyers do? Pikitch advises a wait-and-see approach. Hilborn advises buying Icelandic seafood, as "historically it's one of the better-managed places in the world," he says.

And Ragnar Árnason, professor of fisheries economics at the University of Iceland, advises buyers to: "Send a message to [Icelandic officials] urging them not to under-
mine the ITQ further and rather take steps to strengthen the system."

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

 

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