Iceland fisheries: a model for the world

Posted: 3 November 2008

Author: Don Hinrichsen

Iceland is in the spotlight because of the financial meltdown, but Iceland has another more positive claim on our attention. Until the 1960s it had an economy no better than many developing countries, but it has since evolved a sophisticated fisheries management system which has the support of both the public and the fishing industry. It is a model for other coastal countries struggling to manage dwindling stocks of fish as demand increases. This exclusive report is by Contributing Editor, Don Hinrichsen.

After a light snowfall came the squall, roaring out of the east. A fierce wind bent the sheet rain sideways, sending it directly into my face. With the rain came slivers of sleet, like a thousand small blades. Early March in Iceland is an unpredictable time - sunny one hour, and lashed by rain, sleet and snow the next. Though the weather was foul, a fishing vessel was still landing its catch of cod at Grindavík harbour, on the southwest coast not far from Reykjavik, the country's capital.

Icelandic fishing boat in harbour at Grindavik.
Icelandic fishing boat in harbour at Grindavik.
One of Visir's fishing vessels in harbour at Grindavik. Photo © Don Hinrichsen
Workmen in slickers unloaded the containers full of fresh iced fish onto pallets, which were quickly loaded into trucks and transported to the nearby processing plant operated by one of Iceland's top fishing enterprises, Vísir, the fifth largest in the country specialising in groundfish such as cod and haddock.

Like Iceland's other fishing enterprises, Vísir is vertically integrated. "We catch the fish, process the fish and market the fish," points out Gudjon Thorbjörnsson, head of special assignments at Vísir. "Very little is wasted, as we sell by-catch locally in the markets. And since we control all aspects of fishing, we can manage costs and overheads much better."

Vísir's processing plant at Grindavík is one of four scattered around Iceland's tortuous coastline. "No matter where the company's five long-liners are fishing, they are within fairly easy reach of one of our processing plants," explains Thorbjörnsson.

Long-liners

Torsk or Tusk fish, Iceland
Torsk or Tusk fish, Iceland
Torsk or Tusk fish, caught off Iceland. Credit: http://www.dreamfish.is
In addition to cod and haddock, the company also exploits ling (Molva dypterygia) and tusk (Brosme brosme) fisheries. At the Grindavík plant, which doubles as the company's headquarters, 30 tons of codfish are being processed on this stormy day out of the 100 tons brought in by their boat, the result of just five days of fishing effort.

"Our five long-liners go out in any kind of weather all year round," says Thorbjörnsson. "Our crews consist of 14 men per boat, working for 20 straight days in two 12-hour shifts per day, followed by ten days off. But the boats are at sea most of the time. We only shut down completely for one five week period over the summer months for vacations."

Thorbjörnsson underscores the fact the all five of Vísir's fishing vessels only catch fish using long lines. "We prefer long lines because we feel the fish are better for salting if caught on hooks, instead of in trawls," he says.

The processing plant is a model of efficiency. The 30 tons of cod are cleaned, split, salted and boxed in one continuous assembly line-like process. These salted cod are destined for markets in Italy, Greece and Spain. Most of the company's processed fish - 80 per cent - are exported to EU countries, with some products (fish heads) going as far as Nigeria, where they are used in soup.

Electronic logbooks

Long-lining is tough, demanding work. Each ship puts out about 55 kilometres of fishing line, containing around 40,000 hooks. The lines average one fish for every five hooks and are reeled in periodically where the catch is gutted and put on ice.

Each fishing vessel has its own on-board computerised electronic logbook system, called TrackWell, linked to headquarters and each other. This logbook operates in real time and records the exact location of each boat, the species of fish they are catching and their size class, the number of hooks used, number of fish caught, the bait used, the water depth, sea and air temperature, weather, course and speed, and wave height.

TrackWell computerized fishing system
TrackWell computerized fishing system
The TrackWell computerized system at work in Visir's headquarters at Grindavik. Photo © Don Hinrichsen
"We know exactly where each boat is fishing and what they are catching every minute," says Thorbjörnsson. "And since the captains share information through the electronic logbook, boats can converge on an area where target species are plentiful." In addition to quotas for each company, each boat in the country's 1,300-strong fishing fleet has a quota as well. In 2008, for instance, Vísir was allowed to catch around 16,000 metric tons of fish. For the country as a whole, the company has 6 per cent of the total quotas for cod and haddock, along with 17 per cent of the quotas for ling and 46 per cent for tusk. The top ten companies, including Vísir, have 50 per cent of the entire cod quota in any given year.

In 2005, the last year for which composite data are available, the country's fishing fleets landed 215,000 tons of cod, 266,000 tons of blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou), 194,000 tons of capelin, 103,000 tons of herring, 97,000 tons of haddock, 74,000 tons of redfish, and close to 70,000 tons of saithe (Pollachius virens). In all, Iceland's fleets hauled in close to 1.7 million tons of fish that year, valued at 68 million Icelandic Krona.

Despite a scarcity of cod in the Baltic and North Sea, Iceland's cod fisheries are in fine shape. This is due in large measure to the national quota system and the fact that fisheries are vigorously managed, not simply exploited.

Fisheries management is the provenance of the Marine Research Institute (MRI), based in Reykjavik. The Institute, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Fisheries, monitors the country's marine environment and its fisheries, advises the government on catch levels and conservation measures, and carries out research on marine geology, plankton production, multi-species interactions, fishing gear and their impact on marine ecosystems, mariculture and potentially exploitable species, among other things.

The Institute makes recommendations to the government on catch levels for each commercially valuable species. These are then converted into quotas for each fishery, and catch limits for each fishing company.

Sampling stations

"Authorities monitor the fishing fleet," comments Jóhann Sigurjónsson, Director General of the Marine Research Institute. "All year round, we collect data as to where the fleet is every day, what they are catching and at what rates."

Like the fisheries companies, the Marine Research Institute uses modern technology to monitor stocks and to tell scientists where to go to get representative samples of various species. In all, MRI analyses 1.5 million fish samples every year according to fishing area, time period and fishing gear used.

"Annually we monitor some 1,500 sampling stations around the coast where we look at catch rates, as well as the sex, age and condition of the samples taken," explains Sigurjónsson. "In this way, we have a very good idea of what the fleet is removing from the sea at any given time."

Accurate monitoring and assessment of stocks is the basis for the sustainable management of Iceland's productive fisheries. Since 1965, the country has had in place a Harvest Control Law for cod, which regulates each company's total catch of this single most important species. The quotas are a result of detailed stock assessments that take account of total biomass, spawning stock, and other biological and economic factors.

Sustainable harvest

Processing cod, Iceland
Processing cod, Iceland
Processing freshly caught cod at Visir's plant in Grindavik, near the capital. Photo © Don Hinrichsen
Currently, quotas are based on sustainable harvest levels for each of the major species, which, in the case of herring, is no more than 18 per cent of the total stock, while 25 per cent of the total stock of cod is allowed to be caught. "As a general principle, we use the precautionary approach to fisheries management," points out Sigurjónsson. "The greatest threat to sustainable fisheries is short-term thinking," he asserts.

This is why the public and the fishing industry in particular, supports catch levels and quotas to be set for all fish and other marine organisms harvested. Stocks are studied thoroughly and managed for the long-term. "If we didn't do this," claims Sigurjónsson, "short term interests would dictate decisions on fishing and we'd be in the same shape as much of the fisheries elsewhere, where fleets often flout regulations and take what they can catch."

The Marine Research Institute operates on a modest budget of $30 million a year, maintaining two research vessels and five branch laboratories around the coast. Of its 170 employees, more than half have advanced university degrees. The Institute's observers and inspectors of the Icelandic Fisheries Directorate examine catches on board boats even before they land.

The Institute is also an active member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The members of this international scientific council share expertise and knowledge and work to promote the conservation of marine resources. Iceland is a management model for other countries struggling to manage fisheries under increasingly intense fishing pressures.

Another aspect of the Institute's hands-on management style is that it can close fisheries quickly if stocks seem to be plunging below what scientists have estimated to be sustainable limits. Spawning areas are routinely closed completely for several weeks each year, giving key species a chance to reproduce. A map of Iceland, provided by MRI, shows closed areas as of November 25, 2007.

"We take the decision for immediate closure of areas to fishing about 150 times a year," says Sigurjónsson, "even though the areas remain closed for short periods." What makes Iceland's fisheries management palatable is that the entire fishing industry are stakeholders in the management process. Furthermore, the public is solidly behind management plans. There is a national consensus on the need to manage fisheries and other marine resources for the benefit of all, not least for future generations.

"The problem with most management plans, if they can be called that, is that they are dominated by special interests and by politicians," comments Sigurjónsson. "Our management plans are based on science. Here science drives policy, not politics."

Experience has shown that one of the keys to sustainable management of fisheries is sound science, backed up by the support of government ministries and politicians. But the public also needs to be informed of the state of marine resources and brought into the debate on how best to regulate and manage them.

Government's role

Since Iceland depends for a significant percentage of its GDP on fisheries, the country has a fundamental interest in maintaining stocks and not allowing short-term interests to dictate catch policies. For too many countries caught up in the politics of resource management, special interests and short-term profits drive decisions on harvesting, whether forests, fisheries or some other natural resource.

In the end, of course, science needs to be melded into concrete policies acceptable to both the public and commercial interests. "But the government has a central role to play here, in providing regulations and enforcing them," says Thorbjórnsson. "The difference between this country and many others is that we in the industry are absolutely committed to having stock quotas and a government that enforces them for everybody."

Fishing companies, of course, do have disagreements with the government on how many fish can be taken, "but the big difference is that we have a system of regulation that is supported by the country as a whole and means of assessing policies and changing them to take advantage of the latest developments," adds Thorbjórnsson. "For instance, when herring stocks had recovered enough by 2002, the Institute proposed raising the quotas for the industry, which were adopted by the Ministry of Fisheries."

Sigurjónsson agrees. "There are several keys to successful management strategies of coastal and marine resources," he points out. "You need harvest control laws that are agreed upon by all stakeholders and are enforceable; you need public acceptance of the need to manage fisheries and this requires a well conceived outreach and information program; and above all you need to base your policies in science, not political expediency."

Countries that have these elements in place have a sound foundation upon which to build sustainable management practices.

Instituting such policies is never easy. But "if you want to manage resources, and not just exploit them," insists Sigurjónsson, "then governments need to build consensus within the industry and society as a whole, creating a climate that allows for the continued monitoring and assessment of key resources and their sustainable management over time. Of course our system is far from perfect, but we are trying hard and constantly making progress."

Don Hinrichsen is the author of Coastal Waters of the World, published by Island Press.