Ladies and Gentlemen.
It gives me great pleasure to open this Symposium at the University of Akureyri. Since the 19th Century, Akureyri has been a vibrant centre for agriculture, commerce and fisheries in Northern Iceland. I, myself, grew up not far away from Akureyri and benefited greatly, like so many others, from its intellectual and cultural life.
I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate Dr. Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, the Rector of the University, and his staff for providing us with this platform to discuss the challenges and opportunities for international seafood trade. Allow me also to thank the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, - and especially Dr. Grímur Valdimarsson, for co-operating with the University on the Symposium.
We can hardly overstate the importance of fisheries for Iceland´s economic development. To quote one of the most memorable characters of the great Icelandic novelist, Halldor Laxness, “life is cod above all else”. Indeed, cod still is our most important export. Iceland´s history in the 20th Century is mainly the story of how the expanding fisheries sector transformed a country, once among the poorest in Europe, into a highly developed welfare state. This reflects the vital role that fisheries continue to play in our economy.
But Iceland has also had to grapple with many of the same challenges as other fishing nations. The increased capacity of our fishing fleet meant that the threat of overfishing became a pressing matter. Giving our dependence on fisheries, this issue was particularly important for us, as any collapse in our fish stocks would have brought serious consequences for our economy. As early as in the beginning of the 80´s, both the industry and the Government realised that a sensible fisheries management was essential, not only for the fisheries sector but for Icelandic society as a whole.
In 1984, we introduced a new fisheries management system that was based on transferable quotas. This system is actually quite simple. While the Government sets the total allowable catch for each stock every year, catch quotas can be traded between operators of fishing vessels. This means that we trust the individual operators to decide on the most efficient allocation of our fisheries resources. This system also nurtures responsible thinking in the fishery sector, as the operators of fishing vessels have in the long run everything to gain from a responsible and sustainable management of the fish stocks. I can say with pride that when it comes to ensuring sustainable fisheries and the rational utilisation of our living marine resources, the Icelandic fisheries management system is second to none.
But even the best fisheries management system in the world cannot alter the fact that when we have reached the maximum sustainable yield of our fish stocks, it is simply not possible to increase catches without causing serious harm to individual fish stocks. The fish industry is therefore faced with a new challenge: Is it possible to increase the profitability of the fish industry when we have reached the maximum sustainable yield of our fishing grounds?
In my view, the answer to this question is yes. With better quality products, enhanced technology and sensible marketing, we can get better prices for our products. So, even though there are strict limits to how much we can raise output, there is still a potential for growth in income.
In many ways, Akureyri and the surrounding communities are among the best examples of how this is possible. In this part of the country, you can find some of the world leaders in catching, processing and trading with fish. A stable and sustainable fisheries management system played a large part in their success. But these companies became world leaders also because they took advantage of the best available technology and had good marketing skills. Most importantly, these companies benefited from the fact that they sell a product, which is much in demand by consumers around the world.
Icelandic fish is renowned for its quality. This reputation is not only due to the fact that the fishing grounds around Iceland are among the richest in the world. It is also the result of rigorous quality control, which aims at preserving the quality and freshness of Icelandic fish from the moment it is caught to the moment when it is served to the consumer in Europe, North-America or Asia.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
FAO has made an important contribution to the development of international norms on sustainable fisheries and responsible fish trade. This symposium is one step in a long line of efforts undertaken by FAO on strengthening sustainable utilization of natural resources. This is not least done in order to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, a goal recognised in the 2001 Reykjavík Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem.
Fisheries are one of the most valuable sources of nutrition and income for the developing countries. Ninety-five per cent of those who live from fisheries are in the developing world. Trade with fish is a significant source of foreign currency earnings for the countries in question. It shows the high value of fishery products that the developing countries earn more from trade with fish than any other major traded food commodity, such as coffee, bananas and rubber. When discussing trade with fish, we therefore must take the need of the developing countries into considerations, also in terms of food security and hunger reduction. Here, let me add that enhancing food security has been the core of Iceland’s development cooperation through the Icelandic International Development Agency and the UN University Fisheries Training Programme.
I am of the firm believe that liberalisation of world trade is essential for global development, as well as for food security in the world. The developed countries must ensure that gains from trade liberalisation will benefit the developing countries as well. Free trade agreements, bilateral and multilateral, which take into account parties’ diverse level of development, are of great importance in this respect. Those considerations were an integral part of the Free Trade Agreement signed between the EFTA countries, Iceland among them, and the Southern African Customs Union last summer. Last weekend, I signed a Free Trade Agreement between EFTA and Egypt, which also takes into account these very same considerations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Fish is the subject of this symposium and I have talked a lot about fish here. But I would also like to bring up a topic that is close to my heart - and which touches upon many of the issues that I have raised here - namely agriculture. The northeast of Iceland is renowned for making agricultural products of the highest quality. I should know, being a farmer myself. Indeed, my farm is just a few kilometres away from Akureyri. To those of you that might suspect that I am not completely neutral on the matter, I have only this to say: Have a taste for yourself!
Sheep farming was long the mainstay of Icelandic agriculture - and Iceland is especially well suited to it. In Iceland, sheep are sent out to graze in the hills and mountain pastures of Iceland, where the animals run free until autumn, feeding on the rich and nourishing vegetation of the highlands of Iceland. The result is the distinct gamy taste of Icelandic lamb – which in our view is equal to none. But scienists have also discovered that this has also the added benefit of making Icelandic lamb, especially from this part of the country, particularly rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. This means that enjoying the Icelandic lamb has many of the same health benefits as the consumption of fish.
You might be surprised, not only by the quality of Icelandic agricultural goods, but also by the range of products made here, just south of the Arctic Circle. I could for example mention the honey produced in Kelduhverfi, which has a particular birch taste – something that is much sought after when making honey. When it comes to making quality food products, Iceland has more to offer than just fish.
However, the fact is that while Iceland has a global reputation for selling quality fish, our agriculture has yet to acquire a similar reputation. There are, of course, many reasons behind this. The first one has simply to do with economics. While many of Iceland´s agricultural products are of a world-class quality – the harsh climate and difficult conditions makes agricultural production in Iceland much less cost effective than in the major exporting countries. Secondly, the high tarriffs on agricultural products in Europe has made it much more difficult to break through into the European market. It has also been our experience that it is very difficult to enter into other markets. For example, a costly marketing campaign in the United States has reaped few benefits in the way of actual increase of exports of Icelandic agricultural products.
In my view, the European market still holds the most promise for our agricultural products. I sincerely believe that Icelandic agriculture holds a lot of promise to the future, if we focus on producing agricultural goods of the highest quality for the affluent and discriminate consumer. But in order to succeed, we have to gain better access to markets, most importantly the European market.
Recently, we made a big step towards that goal when we concluded an agreement with the EU on lowering tarriffs on trade with agricultural goods between Iceland and the EU. This agreement will benefit both consumers and farmers in Iceland. The consumers will hopefully have to pay lower prices for agricultural products imported from Europe. Icelandic farmers will also gain better access to the European markets for Icelandic lamb, butter and skyr.
Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am particularly pleased that we have been able to organise this conference in the University of Akureyri. It certainly was very ambitious when the first university in Iceland outside of Reykjavík was established in Akureyri twenty years ago. The relatively short history of the university has, however, demonstrated clearly the foresight of this decision. The University of Akureyri has for the last two decades become a driving force in this community and has made an important contribution to our society as a whole.
In this Symposium, the University of Akureyri and FAO have succeeded in bringing together leading experts in the seafood industry to discuss the many challenges and opportunities that now face the international seafood trade. This is a subject that the University of Akureyri is especially suited to focus its work on. In my view, the University of Akureyri has every potential of becoming a global centre of learning on trade with fish and seafood. The already close co-operation between the University and the UN University Fisheries Traning Programme, lead by Dr. Tumi Tómasson, will be an important contribution to the realisation of this goal. This symposium also marks an important step, and I look forward to a lively exchange of views on this important subject, which affects the livelihood of millions of people.
Enjoy your stay in Akureyri.