Steingrímur Sigfússon: A fisheries stand-off won’t solve the problem

Science, not sanctions, will be needed to resolve the mackerel quota issue, writes Steingrímur Sigfússon

AS WE enter 2013, there is still no solution to the dispute over mackerel fishing rights in the North Atlantic. On the contrary, at the end of last year we saw an unfortunate escalation in the debate. While Iceland has repeatedly offered science-based proposals to sustain the mackerel population and provide a fair catch for all, the response has been threats of sanctions and sharply-worded accusations of wrongdoing.

A war of words or damaging restrictions will not solve this difficult situation; instead, we want to work with Scotland to use science to understand and share the mackerel stock.

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Each country sets a voluntary quota on the amount of mackerel it will catch. As these quotas are self-imposed and can exceed the total recommended amount, mackerel is not being fished at a sustainable level by a number of countries.

Some, including Scotland, are blaming Iceland, forcefully demanding that it reduce its catch, and threatening economic sanctions, such as blocking Icelandic ships from EU harbours and banning imports of products drawn from Iceland’s catch. Instead, we hope to find a science-based solution that grants everyone, including Iceland and Scotland, a fair share.

Science, in fact, is one area where all Coastal States, constituting Iceland, the European Union (primarily representing Scotland, Ireland and Denmark), Norway and the Faroe Islands, concur. During our recent October 2012 negotiations, the Coastal States agreed to communicate to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) about the importance of improving scientific assessment of the mackerel stock.

Furthermore, we decided to strengthen cooperation on monitoring, control and surveillance of all pelagic fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic.

These are important steps, and we must build on this consensus. Yet Iceland’s science-based proposal for each Coastal State to reduce its catch next year, in-line with ICES’s recommendation, was rejected in October. In the past, the EU and Norway have claimed 90 per cent of the recommended catch for themselves, leaving just 10 per cent for Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Russia, even though a far higher percentage of the stock is in our waters.

This is not a fair or realistic solution and puts the long-term sustainability of mackerel at risk. Iceland is hopeful that the EU and Norway, will decide to take a considerably lower proportion of the advised catch, helping to protect the mackerel stock and the economies that rely on it.

Independent scientific reports state that climate change has significantly altered the behaviour and distribution of fish stocks across the Atlantic. Ocean temperatures are much warmer, resulting in new migration patterns of not only mackerel, but haddock, monkfish, blue whiting, herring and capelin as well.

The marine research institutes of Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have jointly conducted research which shows that there is now approximately 1.5 million tonnes of mackerel within the Icelandic exclusive economic zone (EEZ), roughly 25-30 per cent of the total mackerel stock.

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ICES predicts that due to wider climatic developments, mackerel will continue to expand in the northern and western areas of the Atlantic for years to come.

Not only are mackerel rapidly increasing in number, but they are growing in weight as well. Individual mackerel gain an estimated 43-55 percent in weight while in Icelandic waters, meaning a huge increase in the amount each fish consumes.

The mackerel is an active predator and has an appetite for anything in its path, and its increased feeding may have detrimental consequences for other fish stocks, sea birds and Iceland’s marine ecosystem at large. Due to the increased competition for food resources, for example, we already see a significant reduction in the puffin population.

Scientists are concerned that mackerel overpopulation could cause lasting damage to our marine ecosystem, so we must find a careful balance between catching and preserving the stock. Echoing Iceland’s approach to securing the long-term health of the stock, ICES is calling for an “ecosystem approach” to fisheries management that recognises the negative impact great volumes of mackerel have on creatures that cohabit with this species of fish.

Iceland’s proud fishing heritage is founded upon a commitment to sustainability guided by science. Our economy depends on fishing, so we must assure the industry’s long-term health. We also know how important the fishing industry is to Scotland, which is why we are committed to working closely with our Atlantic friends to find a solution that is fair, reasonable, and, above all, based on science.

But even though dialogue and diplomacy are far from exhausted, the angry calls for action against Iceland have grown louder. We hope to lower the temperature so we can reach an agreement, not end up at a stand-off.

Overfishing serves no one, which is why we have demonstrated flexibility and openness throughout negotiations with the Coastal States. Scotland is our neighbour, partner, ally and friend. We hope that it, as part of the EU negotiating group, will collaborate with us to support a fair and science-based compromise. A lot is to gain for both Scotland and Iceland.

We are ready to sit down with Scotland, and all the Coastal States involved, to discuss the facts behind this debate. We all need to ensure the mackerel stock remains at a healthy level for generations to come.

• Steingrímur Sigfússon is Iceland’s minister of industries and innovation and chairman of the Left-Green Movement party.