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History of Aquaculture

Initially based on the on-rearing of salmonids for release into rivers, aquaculture efforts in Iceland gradually developed into larger-scale rearing of fish for the consumer market. While the history of fish farming in Iceland stretches back more than a century, the industry has until recently been struggling in finding its way forward.

The first aquaculture experiments in Iceland began in the 1950s in small ponds and land based tanks as well as experiments with ocean ranching of Atlantic salmon. Hatcheries are generally located in areas with ample cold spring water free of fish pathogens. Early on aquaculture prospects in Iceland were linked with the use of geothermal water to create optimal growth conditions. In hatcheries for Atlantic salmon geothermal water is used to reach optimal water temperature and thereby shorten the process from egg to smolt to one year. Land based tanks with pumped seawater were first used in 1978. In this way optimal temperature and salinity conditions were indeed created.  With a high market price for salmon at the time a number of such land based salmon farms were built in the late 1980s.  However, as the price of salmon went down, this production method proved too expensive due to the high construction costs and the high energy cost for pumping large amounts of water into the tanks.

Although natural conditions for sea cage rearing are considered fairly good in Icelandic waters, progress with this form of aquaculture has been relatively slow compared to neighbouring countries. Rough weather conditions and ice have in the past repeatedly caused serious damage to equipment and seawater temperatures can reach dangerously low levels.

Following a subsequent combined effort of scientists and fish farmers in the 1990s, the domestic aquaculture industry began to lean towards new species like Atlantic halibut, Atlantic turbot, Atlantic cod and other fish species, while maintaining its interest in the rearing of Atlantic salmon, Rainbow trout and Arctic char.

Later, the aquaculture industry in Iceland has seen the launch of various experiments, trials and startups using alien warm water species using geothermal water in fully controlled environments. A small-scale production of Sea bass took place in the nineties and Tilapia since 2008. Experiments with the rearing of abalone, again using geothermal water under controlled conditions, have been ongoing while there have also been very recent experiments with the rearing of sea cucumbers and oysters.

One of the more promising of these new species is the rearing of Senegal sole that began in 2013 and saw the first commercial production in early 2015. This production makes use of cooling water from a geothermal power plant and is conducted in a closed and a carefully controlled system.

Experimental hatching of lumpfish eggs was started in early 2014 with juveniles being exported to The Faroe Islands and Scotland as an innovative approach to “delouse” farmed salmon in floating cages as the lumpfish pluck the salmon lice off the skin of the salmon.  Initial results are promising so this approach evidently has a very large future potential to help solve the salmon lice problem.

Production and exports

The total production of farmed fish in Iceland in 2017 was close to 21,000 tonnes.

Atlantic salmon has seen huge fluctuations in production, from almost 7,000 tonnes in 2006, down to just 292 tonnes in 2008, and 3,260 tonnes in 2015. The production growth has since been high and in 2017 the production reached over 11,000 t. It is expected that salmon will remain the most important farmed species in Icelandic in the next years, with an annual production expected to rise to 22,000 tonns. Of this only around 1,000 t is expected to be farmed on land.

Much controversy exists about the ecological and health impacts of intensive salmonids aquaculture on the environment, including on the impacts on wild salmon stocks. In Iceland only certain specified coastal areas are therefore open for salmonid aquaculture, mainly in the Westfjords and Eastfjords. The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) is tasked with estimating the carrying capacity of the affected areas of each operation. In 2017 the carrying capacity of issued licenses equaled production of a 132.000 t of salmon. The MFRI has further recommended that no more than 71.000 tons of fertile salmon should be farmed in Iceland, there of 50.000 tons in the Westfjords and 21.000 in the Eastfjords, to avoid the risk of genetic deterioration of the wild salmon populations becoming to high.

Arctic char has seen a steady increase in production, with a little less than 1,000 tonnes in 2005 to  almost 4,500 tonnes in 2017. Rainbow trout has also seen a big fluctuations in production, from 226 tonnes in 2011 to 730 tonnes in 2015 and then 4500 tonnes in 2017. Cod farming has seen a significant down-scaling of production in recent years. Initiated in the early 2000’s, production reached a peak of 1,800 tonnes in 2009. Only 29 tonnes were produced in 2017. Various factors have contributed to this trend, particularly unfavourable market conditions. Mussel farming has somewhat stalled in recent years following a steady increase. The overall production of mussels has been between 50 and 100 tonnes in the last years.

One of the most valuable fish farm in Iceland is a salmon broodfish farm which has been operating since 1991. The company´s main activities are salmon ova production, fingerling production, selective breeding of Atlantic salmon, research and development, and domestic and international specialist advice on egg production and supply. The company is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and has a yearly production capacity of 200 million eggs.

Health and welfare

Iceland has taken pride in the fact that some important fish diseases are not found in Icelandic farmed fish. Therefore, all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent introduction of new fish pathogens to the Icelandic aquatic environment.  Existing pathogens that live in the natural environment can cause havoc when introduced into the fish farming environment. A special monitoring program has been in place in Iceland since 1985 to confirm the absence of exotic and other serious diseases. This surveillance program forms the foundation of targeted initiatives by the authorities for controlling diseases in farmed fish and is also a fundamental basis for the international recognition of the disease-free salmon eggs that are exported all over the world from Iceland.

The Icelandic regulations for fish health and welfare include measures such as tie-ups, slaughtering, leaving waters unstocked (fallowing) as well as restrictions on transportation and the sale of fish. The official national monitoring program documents the absence of exotic and other serious diseases for all Icelandic fish farms. The surveillance covers the screening of salmonid brood fish to prevent the vertical transmission of certain pathogens. This helps to gain an important overview of diseases found at any given time and subsequently underpins targeted public initiatives for controlling diseases in farmed fish.

Official quality control is the responsibility of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) under the Ministry of Industries and Innovation. A government-appointed Fish Disease Committee advises MAST on all fish disease issues. The Fish Disease Laboratory is a National Reference Laboratory that offers applied veterinary research, health control and diagnostic services for aquatic animals.


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