The main species
Demersal codfish (bottom living)
Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) is the most iconic fish species for Iceland. A large, fast growing, tasty fish, the cod plays a major role in the Icelandic marine ecosystem. Common catch sizes of cod range from 50 to 100 cm but the largest individual recorded in Icelandic waters was 186 cm in length. The growth rate is dependent on food availability and ocean conditions which subsequently affect maturity and reproduction. In late winter, the cod spawns all around Iceland, but the largest and most important fishing grounds are off the south-western coast. One of the reasons for the cod’s success is its omnivorous eating habits, which varies with size and age. Starting with zooplankton as a juvenile, a mature cod increasingly feeds on other fish. Cod fisheries are conducted all year round mainly using bottom trawl and longline. Management measures implemented over the years following periods of overfishing have contributed to the recovery of the stock. With an annual TAC (Total Allowable Catch) as low as 130,000 tonnes during the bleakest period, the TAC has gradually been increased and is now over 250,000 tonnes.
Haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) is a rather large codfish found in high abundance in Icelandic waters, most common on soft seabed. Typical catch size is 50 to 65 cm long but can exceed 100 cm. The haddock is primarily a benthic feeder but welcomes capelin and sand eel when available. The life cycle of the haddock is similar to that of the cod. Landings of haddock have ranged from 34,000 to 120,000 tonnes since 1950. A large share of the catch is exported chilled, especially to the UK.
Saithe (Pollock) (Pollachius virens) is another species of a large codfish, generally caught when 50 to 100 cm long. Distributed all around Iceland, the saithe can be categorized as benthopelagic. Spawning takes place earlier than for other codfishes. Feeding primarily on krill as a juvenile, saithe adds capelin and sand eel to its diet as it matures. In historic terms, saithe has been a commercially important species for Icelanders. Annual catches have commonly ranged from 30,000 to 130,000 tonnes. Processed in a similar way as cod and haddock, saithe is primarily exported to Germany, either filleted or headed and gutted, fresh or frozen.
Ling (Molva molva) is common in Icelandic waters, it is usually 65-110 cm in length when caught but can grow beyond 200 cm and live to the ripe age of 25. Catches of ling have for decades been in the range of 4,000-8,000 tonnes per year. The Blue ling (Molva byrkelange) is smaller than the ling and of a sleeker build. The total catch of the Blue ling in recent decades has ranged from 1,000-6,900 tonnes.
The Tusk (Brosme brosme) is a common codfish in Icelandic waters, commonly 40 to 90 cm in length when caught. For more than 50 years, the annual catch has ranged from 5,000 to 8,000 tonnes with a few exceptions.
Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) has primarily been caught as a by-catch of limited commercial significance but is now being monitored as a targeted stock by the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute.
Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) has in recent decades been the most valuable flatfish species caught in Icelandic waters. This species has a distribution pattern that is different from other flatfish species around Iceland by seeking deep and cold water environments. The Greenland halibut reaches up 120 cm in length. Landings of this species in Iceland have in recent years ranged from 14,000-22,000 tonnes per year.
Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) is a medium sized flatfish which is easily recognized by the red or orange spots on its otherwise dark back. Size usually ranges from 30 to 50 cm but can extend to 85 cm. Common on a soft seabed in waters all around Iceland, the plaice is a relatively fast growing fish. Catch has been stable at around 6,000 tonnes in recent years.
Lemon sole (Microstomus kitt) is a rather thick flatfish, usually around 30 cm in length but can reach over 60 cm in length. The lemon sole is common on sandy banks south and west of Iceland. This species was highly sought after by foreign fleets during the interwar period. In recent years the annual catch has ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes, almost exclusively exported to the UK.
Witch flounder (Glyptocephalus cynoglossus) is similar in size to the lemon sole but thinner. Its life cycle and distribution is almost identical to that of the lemon sole except for different preferences of seabed types. Largely ignored by local fishermen for decades, the witch flounder rose to prominence in the 1980s along with other flatfishes. Annual catch is around 1,000 tonnes.
Atlantic halibut (Hippolglossus hippoglossus) is among the largest of the bony fishes in the world, with giant individuals measuring up to 470 cm in length. Common in the North-Atlantic, it used to be frequently encountered in the waters south and west of Iceland. Following a long period of decline of Atlantic halibut all fishing of this species was prohibited in Icelandic waters as of 2012. An unavoidable by-catch in many fisheries, fishermen are obliged to release caught individuals if deemed fit for survival.
The three remaining flatfishes of commercial importance to Icelandic fisheries are megrim (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis), dab (Limanda limanda) and the long rough dab (Hippoglossoides platessoides). The total catch for these three species was around 900 tonnes in 2017. Four additional species have been recorded, of which both turbot and flounder seem to be gaining foothold in recent years.
While the redfishes are some of the most common groundfish species in Icelandic waters, they are unique in their own way. The golden redfish (Sebastes norvegicus) is the most common of the redfishes that live in Icelandic waters. Its relative, the Norway redfish (Sebastes viviparous), has only been of limited commercial interest due to its small size. The golden redfish is commonly 35 to 40 cm in length when caugh but can reach a length of 100 cm. These fish are slow growing and reach a high age. They mate in late autumn with the larvae being hatched in the springtime. Found in waters all around Iceland, the main fishing grounds for golden redfish are at the edge of the continental shelf at a depth of 200-400 metres southwest and west of Iceland with annual landings ranging from 50,000 to 120,000 tonnes. In addition to the catches in domestic waters, Iceland harvests redfish off the east coast of Greenland and in the 1960s around Newfoundland. Redfish is almost entirely caught by bottom trawl. Initially the main market was in Germany but Japan is currently the biggest market for golden redfish. The beaked redfish (Sebastes mentella) previously known as deep water /oceanic /pleagic redfish is made up of two separate stocks, one which is entirely pelagic (oceanic redfish) while the other, can either be demersal, pelagic or both (deep water redfish). As the redfish species/stocks are widely dispersed outside national EEZs, distribution of the different species and stocks becomes highly significant when negotiating national shares from these resources.
Other demersal fishes
The almost spherical lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) is common in the shallow waters close to the shore during the spawning season which is the season for harvesting. The lumpfish is a pelagic species by nature, spending most of its life cycle in the open seas. Females are considerably larger than the males, commonly 35 to 55 cm whereas males are 28 to 40 cm in length. Caught in large gillnets from small decked or even open vessels, the fisheries are subject to an effort quota. Highly fluctuating, the catches have ranged from 3,000 to 13,000 tonnes a year since early 1970s.
Confined to the southernmost area of Icelandic waters and virtually solely a by-catch of limited quantity until the late 1990s, monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) began spreading more widely in Icelandic waters, most likely due to temperature changes in the ocean. Catch figures subsequently increased. The monkfish’s habitat has an enormous range in depth, from shallow waters down to some 1,800 metres. It is a fast growing species that can reach a length of 155 cm. The maximum annual landings of monkfish have in recent years been close to 1,000 tonnes.
With a common catch size of 50 to 60 cm, the largest Atlantic wolffish (Anarhichas lupus) caught in Icelandic waters measured 125 cm. The wolffish prefers soft seabed and has predominantly been found off the coast of the West Fjords. Spawning takes place in the autumn with the unusual arrangement that the eggs are mostly guarded by the male fish. Of significant commercial importance, the wolffish has always been in great demand due to its excellent eating qualities. Since the 1960s catch figures have ranged from 9,000 to 18,000 tonnes a year.
Similar to its more common cousin, the spotted wolffish (Anarhichas minor) with its leopard-like skin can become much bigger than the wolffish. Found all around Iceland, catch figures range from 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes per year. While initially landed almost solely as by-catch, this species is now mainly caught in longline fisheries.
In appearance, the great silver smelt (Argentina silus) is somewhat herring-like. Sometimes reaching an age of 20 years, the common catch size is 40 to 50 cm. It is found at a depth of 200 to 500 metres south and west of Iceland. Initially of limited commercial relevance, good markets have been found for the great silver smelt. The catch has been between 6,000-7,000 tonnes in recent years.
Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) is the most abundant fish in the North Atlantic. Commonly sized 30 to 40 cm it can become 25 years old. Split into many sub-stocks based on where and when spawning takes place, the Atlanto-Scandian (also known as Norwegian-Icelandic spring spawning herring) is the largest one. Catches from the Atlanto-Scandian stock reached a pinnacle in the mid-1960s followed by a collapse of the stock due to overfishing from which the stock only recovered in the early 1990s. In 2016 Icelandic landings of the stock were just over 50,000 tonnes. While the Atlanto-Scandian herring spends significant time in Icelandic waters between spawning periods off the Norwegian coast, the Icelandic summer spawning herring never leaves domestic waters. Landings from the stock amounted to 60,000 tonnes in 2016.
Capelin (Mallotus villosus) is a small pelagic fish, 15 to 18 cm in length with a short life cycle. Once mature for reproduction, the capelin aggreates in large shoals. Migrating clockwise around Iceland to the spawning grounds off the south and southwest coast, the capelin is preyed upon by numerous larger species, fish, marine mammals and seabirds. Once spawning is over the males die and most of the females. Caught in large quantities, the landing often surpassed the catch of all other species combined. The peak of the capelin fishery was in 1997 when the total catch was a little short of 1.6 million tonnes. In 2009 no capelin fishery was permitted but since then the catch has been between 150,000 and 500,000 tonnnes.
Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus) is a widely distributed pelagic fish species that has, in the last two decades, expanded its feeding migration and spatial distribution, to become much more common than brefore in Icelandic waters. The fishing of mackerel by Icelandic vessels since 2005 has added a new chapter to the history of the Icelandic fish industry. The landings of mackerel in Iceland in 2017 reached 168,000 tonnes.
Blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) is a highly migratory small pelagic codfish with a very wide geographical distribution. Typical length is 22 to 30 cm but it can reach up to 50 cm. The species is found all around Iceland, yet only sporadically in the cold water off the northern coast. The total stock size of blue whiting has an enormous range. Catches exceeded one million tonnes from 1998 to 2008, but reached two million tonnes in 2003-2006. The Icelandic share of blue whiting has ranged from 10,000 tonnes to 500,000 tonnes.
A few other pelagic species are found in Icelandic waters, e.g. horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus), the pearlside (Maurolicus muelleri) and the sand eel (Ammodytes marinus).
Cartilaginous species of fish are considered “ancient species” as they have changed very little for millions of years. The two modern groups of cartilaginous fishes are termed chimaeras and elasmobranchs. The latter group splits into sub-groups of sharks and dogfishes, and rays. In general the chimaeras are deep sea species living on benthic animals. They are also named ratfish with a long whip-like tail but no caudal fin. Rays (skates) and sharks feed on a variety of benthic animals over a wide range of depth.
The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is slow growing but can reach a size of up to 7 metres, feeding on virtually any prey available. Found all around Iceland, it is more common in the colder waters to the north. The Greenland shark was intensely harvested during the 18th century and shark liver oil was at the time one of Iceland’s most important export products particularly as it was the fuel of choice for street lamps abroad. Still caught in limited quantity, the shark is processed for the domestic market only, both for shark liver oil and specially cured shark meat, which is served as a festive culinary tradition in Iceland.
The spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) is a highly migratory species which is not targeted in Iceland and only landed as by-catch from other fisheries. The largest individual from Icelandic waters was measured at 114 cm.
The grey skate (Dipturus batis) is a large skate species, usually around 100 to 150 cm on length, which can reach up to 300 cm in length. It is distributed all around Iceland, but rarer in colder waters. Most commonly found at a depth of 100 to 200 metres, its habitat is extremely variable. Intensely harvested during the first half of the 20th century, current catches are a fraction of what they were. Not subject to a TAC, skate is primarily a by-catch from other fisheries for domestic consumption.
The starry skate (Raja Amblyraja radiata) is a small species, usually no longer than 70 cm. It is by far the most abundant cartilaginous fish in Icelandic waters. Like the grey skate it is not subjected to a TAC regiment and the starry ray is almost entirely recorded as a by-catch. With a steady decline in the grey skate catch, the starry ray has become its substitute on the domestic market.
These are fish that change their habitat between saltwater and fresh water. Only five fish species within this category are native to Icelandic freshwater. Divided into anadromous and catadromous, the latter grow in fresh waters but breed in the ocean, whereas the former do this the other way round.
Atlantic salmon (Salmon salar) spawns in rivers. The juveniles grow in the rivers until 2 to 5 years old, before entering the sea at the size of 10-15 cm. In the sea they live in the uppermost layers. Tagged Icelandic salmon have been caught as far as West Greenland and north of the Faroes islands. Otherwise the available information on feeding grounds for Icelandic salmon are scarce except for that salmon from southwest Iceland migrates to areas in the Irminger sea southwest of Iceland. Having reached sexual maturity 1-3 years later, the salmon heads back to spawn in the river where it was hatched. After the exhaustive spawning process, compounded by lack of food, most of the salmon die. Some, however, survive the process and return to the ocean in springtime, often to spawn again the following autumn. A common catch size of the salmon after one year in the sea is 55-65 cm, after two year it has reached 70 to 100 cm but few individuals can reach greater size. Atlantic salmon sustains an economically important sports fishery in Iceland.
Brown trout (Salmo trutta) is found as anadromous fish but also as resident freshwater stocks. Brown trout needs running water for spawning and is only found in lakes with inflowing and outflowing streams. The seatrout migrates to sea after 2-3 years in freshwater. They migrate in early spring but due to limited saltwater tolerance the seatrout overwinter in fresh water. The brown trout can reach up to 100 cm in length but is commonly 35 to 50 cm in size. A popular species in rod-fisheries, the total catch in 2015 amounted to 33 thousand fish and 29 tonnes.
Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is a widespread species in Iceland. The species has a circumpolar distribution. It can spawn in both rivers and lakes and can live in cold lakes and streams with low productivity. The sea char migrates to the sea in early spring to feeding grounds in coastal areas close to their home river. Like the brown trout the char stays in freshwater during the winter. After a few weeks in the sea the mature fish starts entering fresh water in mid-July. Sea char commonly measure 35-45 cm whereas its freshwater counterpart is usually smaller. Its growth pattern, however, varies significantly and can have more than one growth form (morph) in the same lake or river system. The annual recorded rod catch of Arctic char in 2015 was 25 thousand fish. However, this species has become significant in aquaculture.
European eel (Anguilla anguilla). The life cycle of the eel was a mystery to scientists for a long time, as fishermen never caught anything that was recognised as young eel. The spawning ground of the eel was discovered in the early 1900s to be in the Sargasso sea, from which the eel larvae are carried to the coasts of Europe with ocean currents. The eel in Iceland is regarded as a part of the European eel population. The number of eel larvae that enter freshwaters in Iceland seems to vary between years. They are mainly found in south Iceland but in low numbers in other areas. The growth rate in freshwater is low and the mature eel migrates to the sea at the age of 12-30 years. Historically there has only been a limited fishery for eel in Iceland and no official information is available on stock size or harvest. Eel fishery is now closed due to the poor condition of the stock.
The European flounder (Platichthys flesus) is a relative newcomer in Icelandic waters. It is found in brackish water and in the slow flowing lower parts of rivers.
A few species of invertebrates are harvested commercially in Icelandic waters. As for crustaceans, northern shrimp is the most important species, followed by Norway lobster. Crab fisheries have not been a success but that might be changing with new species appearing in the Icelandic ecosystem. Apart from scallop, whelk and ocean quahog many different species of molluscs are found in Icelandic waters. However, few are large or abundant enough to sustain harvesting. Several cephalopod species also have habitats deep off the Icelandic coast but harvesting has been limited. Two species of echinoderms have been harvested, the green sea urchin and the sea cucumber.
The northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) is a sub-arctic species, widespread in the northern parts of the North Atlantic. Predominantly found off the north coast of Iceland at depths below 300 metres, high concentrations have been found in shallower inshore waters. The shrimp has a remarkable life cycle. Soon after the male reaches sexual maturity, it changes sex and becomes a female. The only commercially harvested shrimp species in Iceland, the northern shrimp varies in size as the offshore individuals are larger, and thus more valuable than those caught inshore. At their peak in the mid-1990s the shrimping fleet was annually landing more than 70,000 tonnes. Then the shrimp stock was heavily reduced most likely as a consequence of cod migrating to northern waters and feeding on the shrimp. In 2006, the total shrimp catch was down to less than 1,000 tonnes but since then the shrimp stocks have recovered and the catches in recent years have been between 5,000-7,000 tonnes. The UK is the most important market for Icelandic shrimp products.
The Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus) is the most valuable species in Icelandic waters (per unit weight). It is predominantly found off Iceland’s southern coast . The body size of nephrops is small in comparison to other similar species, with the males being 20 to 25 cm in size when fully grown whereas the females rarely exceed 18 cm. Primarily harvested during the short summer period, large-scale nephrops fisheries commenced in the late 1950s. During the last 25 years annual catches have ranged from 1,000 tonnes up to about 2,500 tonnes.
The Iceland scallop (Chlamys islandica) is common in domestic waters, mostly concentrated off the west coast. Successfully harvested with seabed-dredges for over three decades, the scallop fisheries reached a pinnacle in the mid-1980s as catch figures exceeded 17,000 tonnes. In 2004 the stock collapsed due to a disease caused by a parasite. Since then no fisheries have been conducted with the exception of a limited experimental fishery.
The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) is widely distributed all around Iceland but confined to the shore or shallow waters. Harvested to a small extent for local consumption or for bait, various attempts for mussel mariculture have been made. While growing well and yielding excellent quality the road to commercial success has been bumpy. Part of the problem is protecting the shellfish from seabirds as well as the high cost of complying with the required sanitary programmes.
The ocean quahog (Arctica islandica) is large bivalve that can reach a shell diameter of 10 cm and an age of 400 years. With the species being abundant all around the island, commercial harvesting commenced in the late 1980s and yielded up to 14,400 tonnes at the peak. By 2005 harvesting stopped due to unfavourable market conditions and since then only a minor fishery has been conducted.
The common whelk (Buccinum undatum) is a sea snail found all around Iceland that can reach up to 15 cm in length. It is only harvested in West Iceland. Catches reached a peak of 1,300 tonnes in 1997 but progressively went down and have in recent years been from 90-300 tonnes.
Whales and seals are abundant in Icelandic waters. Some of the first Icelandic legal texts deal with ownership of stranded whales, a term still signifying great luck in the Icelandic language. At least 12 species of cetaceans can be classified as ‘regulars’ around Iceland, of which five are baleen whales (filter feeders) and seven toothed whales. In addition, 11 species have been recorded more sporadically around Iceland. Whale populations have been monitored and counted regularly over the last three decades to ensure conservation and long-term sustainability of the catches of exploited species. Iceland is a member of the International Whaling Commission as well as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission which provides advice based on science, local knowledge and technological developments.
The fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) can reach a length of up to 23 metres and an estimated weight of 78 tonnes. Frequent in Icelandic waters, the fin whale almost exclusively feeds on krill. Fin whales constituted the main target species of Iceland’s whaling operations until a moratorium was imposed in 1986. The harvesting of fin whales was resumed in Iceland in 2006. In recent years some 120-150 animials have annually been caught, which has been close to the recommended catch limits, apart from the years 2011 and 2012 when whaling operations were halted. Most fin whales have been caught off the continental shelf west of Iceland, but in 2014 and 2015 whaling moved further south and east in the autumn. In 2016 and 2017 no fin whaling was conducted. The estimated stock size in the North Atlantic is around 50,000 animals of which some 20,000 are in the Central North Atlantic (Icelandic and adjacent waters). In contrast to the Southern Hemisphere subspecies, North Atlantic fin whales have made a healthy recovery. In recent years some 120-150 animals have annually been hunted.
The other commercially harvested whale species in Icelandic waters is the common minke whale or (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) which is a species of minke whale within the suborder of baleen whales. Minke whaling has in recent years has been below the recommended catch limits. Most of the catches have been taken in Faxaflói (W-Iceland) outside the designated whale watching area. In 2017, a total of 17 minke whales were caught.
The growth of whale populations around Iceland has raised questions about the effect they can have on the ecosystem and the commercial capture fisheries in particular. The total consumption by the twelve species of cetaceans in Icelandic waters has been estimated at around 6 million tons annually, or 4-6 times the total landings by the Icelandic fishing fleet.
For further information on individual species please visit the website of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in Iceland.