No More Fishy Solutions to the Mackerel Dispute
Applying economic sanctions and blaming smaller states will not help secure an agreement on the quota conflict.
By Steingrimur J. Sigfusson
The ongoing international dispute over mackerel fishing rights in the North Atlantic demands a resolution, not the escalation seen in recent weeks. While Iceland remains prepared to negotiate a reasonable solution, other countries are launching attacks and threatening economic sanctions.
This is not the answer. We need a science-based solution that ensures a fair share for all and safeguards all parties' environmental and economic interests.
Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic writer and Nobel laureate, once wrote that in Iceland, “life is salted cod.” He had a point. Fishing accounts for more than 40% of Iceland's total exports and employs 5% of the country's work force. The fishing industry has been important for our economic recovery since 2008—hardly surprising given that it has been a cornerstone of our economy for a century.
The mackerel dispute involves the coastal states in whose waters the oily fish is present: European Union states including Scotland, Ireland and Denmark, as well as non-EU states like Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands. At present, each country sets a voluntary quota on the amount of mackerel it will catch. But because the quotas are self-imposed and there is no limit on the collective catch, mackerel is being overfished.
That's not good for anyone. Yet instead of looking for a solution that grants everyone a fair share, certain EU states are blaming Iceland, demanding that it alone reduce its catch. The EU States involved are even threatening EU-wide trade sanctions, such as blocking Icelandic ships from EU harbors and banning imports of products resulting from Iceland's mackerel catch.
Sustainable fisheries are essential to Iceland's livelihood, and we are proud of our small nation's track record in this area. The countries that have rejected our efforts to resolve this issue are undercutting the health of our fishing industry and jeopardizing the livelihood of many thousands of our fishermen and their families who depend on the longevity of the mackerel stock.
The priority is to agree on quota allocations that will sustain the mackerel population for decades to come. But in the absence of a long-term solution, Iceland believes interim measures must be taken. Despite proposals from our government for each coastal state to reduce its catch next year by 15-20%, in line with scientific guidance from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), no agreement was reached.
Even worse is the reckless move by the EU and Norway to claim 90% of the collective catch for themselves. This leaves just 10% for Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Russia combined, even though up to 30% of the mackerel population migrates to Iceland's waters. Some fish are present in these waters year-round.
As coastal states, we share a joint responsibility for sustainable fishing and protection of the mackerel population. We must find a fair and enduring solution. A unilateral approach will only result in overfishing that hurts us all.
The mackerel debate is at the top of our minds as we continue our discussions on EU accession. Iceland has been within the European Economic Area since 1994 and a member of the European Free Trade Association since 1970. EU member states are our neighbors, partners, allies and friends.
But the EU has moved closer to enforcing trade sanctions on our fishing industry, even though efforts to solve the mackerel dispute through dialogue and diplomacy are far from exhausted. Applying economic sanctions and blaming smaller states will not help secure an agreement. It will only make a resolution even more difficult to achieve.
Iceland does not object to the EU's efforts to fight overfishing. We are deeply troubled, however, that the EU refuses to acknowledge that its member states take an oversized proportion of the catch. Targeting Iceland will not lead to better collaboration over this shared resource. Sanctions should be reserved for rogue states and harmful regimes, not for a close ally.
Scientific analysis shows that if negotiations continue without success, it will throw the marine ecosystem out of balance, with serious negative consequences. Climate change has created shifts in sea temperatures, and these have caused the population of mackerel in Icelandic waters to explode. Mackerel are now competing for resources with other fish stocks and bird stocks. This has drastically reduced Iceland's puffin population, for example.
To help protect both the ecosystem and our economies, we must carefully consider scientific data and recommendations from ICES to come to a mutually beneficial solution. Economic sanctions will not resolve this debate. For the well-being of our country and the North Atlantic, we must reach an agreement. We stand ready to play our part.
Mr. Sigfusson is Iceland's minister of industries and innovation and chairman of the Left-Green Movement party.