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