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Fisheries Management

The management system

The essential feature of the fisheries management system in Iceland is the annual TAC (Total Allowable Catch) for each stock. While the TAC defines the overall catch quantity over one year the catch quotas are primarily distributed through the fixed share of the TAC the individual operators have (the Individual Transferable Quotas, ITQ).  The decision on the annual TAC for each stock is by law anchored in the formal advice presented by the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in June each year. ICES provides advice as well so both ICES and the MFRI advise on research and harvesting policy in general. The recommendation given by the MFRI for the main commercial species is peer reviewed by the Advisory Committee (ACOM) of ICES every year. While the scientific advice has been closely followed by the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture in recent years, the purely scientific advice is nonetheless subject to a wide formal and informal consultative process involving industry stakeholders et al.

Support measures to the general system of management include real time area closures: A short-term immediate closure system has been in force since 1976 with the objective of protecting juvenile fish. If, in a given area, there are several consecutive immediate closures, the minister can issue a regulation to close the area for a longer time period, thus directing the fleet to other areas. The Directorate of Fisheries and the Coast Guard supervise these closures in collaboration with the MFRI. Additionally, there are temporary area closures: The major spawning grounds of cod are closed during the main spawning season.

Restrictions on the use of gear are also in effect. Off the north and north-west coast of Iceland, fishing by bottom- and midwater trawlers and Danish seiners is not allowed within 12 miles from a line drawn across the mouth of fjords and bays. Off the east, south and west coast, bottom trawling is permitted according to vessel size and engine power, with vessels over 42 metres in length not having access within 12 miles, but vessels less than 29 metres in some areas up to 4 miles. In many areas special rules regarding fishing gear apply, e.g. a requirement of using a sorting grid when fishing for shrimp to avoid juveniles and small fish and an obligation to use bycatch- or juvenile grid when fishing for pelagic species in certain areas to protect other species and juveniles.

The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute carries out a wide range of extensive scientific research projects on the status and productivity of the commercial stocks while monitoring the marine environment and the ecosystem around Iceland on a long-term basis. A significant effort has been put into mapping the fishing grounds around the island, the type of bottom (mud, sand, gravel etc.), as well as locating vulnerable marine ecosystems , such as geothermal water vents and cold water corals. These areas are strictly closed to bottom trawling.

Controls and enforcement

Effective controls and enforcement is a pivotal element of a responsible fisheries management system. The Directorate of Fisheries is charged with administrating the fisheries management system. The Directorate closely monitors fisheries to ensure that rules are being followed. Real-time status of landings is delivered to a live database through a synchronised weight control system at all registered landing ports. The Directorate also carries out surveillance and inspections of the fishing operations, landing of catches and processing plants in close collaboration with the Icelandic Coast Guard, the Food and Veterinary Authority as well as certified municipal harbour officials responsible for proper recording of the weight of the landed catch.

Icelandic law explicitly prohibits discards of bycatch, i.e. unwanted species or undersized fish. There are certain incentives for compliance incorporated into the system. For example, the master of a vessel can decide that a certain amount of all landed catch will not be deducted from the vessel catch quota, on the condition that this catch is sold at an auction market. The proceeds from these sales are directed to a special fund that is used to fund marine research. The crews of the fishing vessels get paid a minimum, fixed handling fee for bringing the bycatch ashore. This rule encourages vessels to bring all catches to port. As regards cod, haddock saithe and redfish juveniles, only half of such catches count against the quota of a vessel, to a maximum of 10% of the catch on each fishing trip.

Incidental catch of seabirds and marine mammals is monitored by mandatory recordings in electronic logbooks. These measures are meant to maintain the delicate balance between effective harvesting and good environmental health so as to support sustainable fisheries.

Safety at sea

Fishing has always been and continues to be a dangerous occupation. In Iceland safety at sea is integrated into the general management of the fisheries sector. An Icelandic fishing vessel is not allowed to leave harbour if the fishermen on board have not completed an obligatory safety training program at the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre. All fishermen are insured against accidents on-board the vessel. Accidents are now fewer than before and there often pass a number of years between fatalities.

Fishing gear

Fish in Icelandic waters is caught by various types of fishing gear, depending on species sought, type of seabed, depth of water and numerous other factors.  Selectivity is a key issue when deciding on appropriate fishing gears. Minimum mesh sizes are strictly regulated to allow the smaller fish to escape. Besides, various additional techniques are in place, such as rigid square grids over which codends (the bag at the end of the trawl) made of T90 meshes seem to be an improvement. Moreover, good results for avoiding juvenile fish are being achieved by short term and long term closures of fishing grounds based on constant monitoring.

Longline was the predominant gear for catching groundfish until the early 1960s when gillnets, and later bottom trawls became the fishing gear of choice. Over the last decades net materials have been getting ever stronger and lighter  allowing for the construction of huge trawls with a manageable drag.  Common use of “T90 bottom trawls” (30% lesser net) with pelagic doors (not dragged on the bottom), has resulted in considerable fuel savings without sacrificing fishing efficiency.

The longline is still widely used as the catching method of choice for high quality products.  Longline fisheries have been revolutionized with automatic baiting machines that can be used on board the vessels. Fishing with “hand lines“ has also been automated with computerized jigging reels that set the fish hooks to the correct depth, jigg the line and then pull the fish up once it is has taken the hook.

Pelagic species are mainly caught with midwater-trawls but in shallower water purse seines are still used. Small mesh trawls are the most common gear for shrimp and Nephrops fisheries while scallop is caught with dredges.

In recent years, the impetus has been on the energy efficiency of fishing gears and how negative environmental effects can be minimized. Static fishing gears, such as gillnets, handlines and longlines are very energy efficient compared to the dragged fishing gears (trawls) but gillnets have their drawbacks. However, in terms of energy efficiency per kilo of fish there is no match to the pelagic purse seine.

Trawling technology is undergoing a radical revision, where new materials and construction techniques play a role in redesigning the whole system. These new fish capture systems use sensors and information technology linked to the bridge of the vessel with the result that the energy used for trawling is approaching that traditionally achieved with static fishing gears. These include “intelligent trawling doors“ and “light touch“ rollers to minimize effect on bottom structures.   Besides the better quality fish that these capture systems are delivering, selectivity by species and fish size is greatly improved, not the least by making use of traditional knowledge about fish behaviour. 

Ecolabelling programs

The fish ecolabelling movement that was initiated by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1996 allows consumers to favour fish products that originate in well managed and responsible fisheries. The Icelandic seafood industry has embraced this call for responsible and sustainable fisheries as an opportunity to underline effective fisheries management practices.  

The Iceland Responsible Fisheries programme was officially launched in October 2008 by the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, the Federation of Icelandic Fish Processing Plants and the National Association of Small-boat Owners. In 2011 it became a formal non-profit foundation. The main purpose of the IRF programme is to preserve the fisheries management principles adopted by the international community and to document well managed Icelandic fisheries to the highest level of assurance. IRF is a certification programme based on the FAO Ecolabelling Guidelines for Marine Capture Fisheries and the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. It uses third party certification provided by the ISO accredited company, Global Trust Certification Ltd, Ireland (now part of the SAI Global)  that delivers certification to specific IRF standards.

Many producers are parties to both of these programmes and then there are other schemes that Icelandic companies comform to such as Friend of the Sea and ecolabels that are run by individual retailers.


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