Gunboat Þór stays home

02 Aug 2011
Navy gray <I>Þór</i> (Thor): not on the warpath but tied to the ‘peacepath’. Rare WF ‘catch’ on camera, Reykjavik harbour, 1980s © TW : EEC Photos

Navy gray Þór (Thor): not on the warpath but tied to the ‘peacepath’. Rare WF ‘catch’ on camera, Reykjavik harbour, 1980s © TW : EEC Photos

With a tiny population of just 320,000, Iceland hauls massively above its weight. Their modern saga jumps from earth-topped houses to plane, launched low-cost transatlantic charters, pioneered cheap international phone calls and tapped their volcanic resources for geothermal power for homes and tourist lagoons. They won a cod war with Britain, are one of today’s biggest cod catchers and have been under attack over mackerel. Iceland’s financial meltdown was a massive shock to national pride. Focusing on fish again and exports of catch-logging and VMS software to neutraceuticals, means they are fighting back to pick up the pieces.

WF’s Icelandic and indeed Old Norse are rudimentary to say the least. We crossed the language barrier in a three-way exercise with minister Jón Bjarnason, and his press officer Bjarni Harðarson in the middle.

How was national morale? Society is recovering from the crash but “it is still quite tough”, they said. The general opinion of the government was that they have “been to the bottom and we are creeping upstairs now”.

WF sees the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Movement coalition government aims to “…prioritise new values of equality, social justice, solidarity, sustainable development, gender equality, moral reform and democracy in Iceland”… and create a “Nordic welfare society in Iceland, where collective interests take precedence over particular interests[,] and to revive confidence in the domestic community and rebuild Iceland’s international reputation”.

On social justice, the main domestic fishing row is that small fishermen have lost out over the years to large combines accumulating catch rights under the Icelandic licence trading scheme. Too many played the financial markets instead of catching fish. The ministry’s response was a “summer season” cod catch concession for small boats, but their skippers complain 3,000t is too little, and combines complain it is out of their quota and losing them money.

Jón Bjarnason and Bjarni Harðarson told WF there have been lots of encouraging comments about the operation, and, if there are complaints from both sides then that is usually an indication that it is going along the right lines. The long term aim is equitable access and security for the people in the small, coastal fishing towns. Government can now take the rights from one town to put into the hands of municipal authorities in another.

Off to market

With fish core to exports, were fisherman angry at indirectly paying off the bankers’ debts? “Yes, but everyone in the country in a way is angry at…paying for the gambling.” People now realise that money comes out of real value, not just paper, they said.

Seafood exports are about 40% of national export value, almost the same level as 20 years ago, but during the banking bubble the picture was different. Less than 10% of the population works in fisheries; a good ratio of jobs to value exported.

Jón Bjarnason is well equipped for the present challenge. His career in the Alþingi (the Althingi - Iceland’s ancient parliament) since 1999, ranges over trade and tax and agriculture, fisheries and transport[1]. He has good contacts in the Nordic political scene through Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region and his education was international. From agricultural studies at Hvanneyri in Iceland he studied at the University of Life Sciences at Ås in Norway in 1970, then Edinburgh. He should know how to handle unruly Icelanders as he was a teacher (and farmer) before heading up the Agricultural University in Hjaltadalur in 1981.

Iceland’s automated fish gutting and handling equipment business is still going along and could perhaps gain more sales as local labour costs continue to soar for outsourced processing in China and the Far East. They said the fish trade between Iceland and China is “moving and going quite well”. They are looking for international opportunities everywhere.

They deftly skirted hard answers on stock conditions. Mackerel is clearly abundant, but fishermen’s experience and the Icelandic cod catch (ranging from 150,000t to 200,000t in recent years) suggest NGO and scientific data and warnings over cod do not seem to square up.

They said there were “many ideas about the science of Nature” but the ministry was not taking any particular side. “We listen to all these opinions…We have a big area for our fishing and we have been going very carefully in our seas in over the last years”, they added.

As for “whose” data?: “This is not a simple question. Definitely we have to take into consideration the data...from the fishermen and the fishermen’s environment, as well as from the scientists.” A recent ministry meeting with fishermen means their data will now be taken more into consideration, they said.

A reputation for quality helps marketing and WF recalls chatting to a very content Marks & Spencer prawn buyer at a nearby breakfast table in a Reykjavik hotel in the 1980s. He had been checking out hygiene at a supplier’s factory.

So, did Iceland need to spend scarce money on other’s certification schemes, such as that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)?

“There is no one way that [one scheme] is absolutely the right one and another not”. Getting certification from MSC is one approach, they said. They have been looking at other ways of doing this, adding that there is certification in Iceland for ‘responsible’ fisheries and this was quite a valuable way of achieving comparatively the same end, they added[2].

Smoking mackerel!

The angry smoke signals from foreigners over mackerel continued to rise up during the summer. In our late July chat they said they would be “carrying on the catch, definitely, definitely, there is no problem in that”. They also said: “We believe in the obligations of all the coastal states to reach an agreement [on this issue] and none of the states can be excluded from that negotiation”.

The Scots claim mackerel is core to their fishing economy. So should Iceland and the Faroes get away “scot-free” (that’s Old Norse for “tax-free” - nothing to do with Scots). Jón Bjarnason knows Scotland. “We respect the Scots very much. [But] we reject that Iceland has been taking more than is natural in this situation.”

So, should ‘historical rights’ over stocks change when stocks relocate?

They said water temperature was one factor, but there were lots of other things happening. “We can’t look at natural resources, whether it is fish or something else, as being totally static and won’t change. We know that quite well here in Iceland, in a country of lava and hot springs, that natural resources they too move, they do change their course and the same happens with the fish.” Trying to control fish with EU regulations “…isn’t quite logical if you look at Nature itself”, they added.

On discards and using all of a fish, they see this as part of developing new neutraceutical products (they were pioneers on cod liver oil for wellbeing). New rules mean fishing vessels have to bring everything to land, for example the whole lump fish – before, this was thrown in the sea after taking only the liver which has been selling well in Asia.

Volcanic mussels

The minister and his team know that Iceland’s inlets and geothermal water for warm fish and mussel farming offer good potential. Figures from the farming industry show exports (mainly to the US) peaked in 2006 at around 5,000t, worth two billion IS krónur (ca. 90 ISK = ₤1 in 2006; rising to ca. 340 = 1 in the 2008 crash). Exports dropped to 2,000t in 2008, of which 1,800t was arctic char. The industry says one firm has successfully exported juvenile halibut, mainly to Norway, and another was exporting selectively bred salmon eggs, mainly to Chile.

The minister is, by heart, mind and profession, a farmer, from a farming family, and an agricultural expert. The ministry has been boosting arable production and livestock breeding on Iceland’s difficult terrain; local production reduces expensive food imports. Did he think Iceland could use its expertise to expand farmed fish, particularly the high-value juvenile exports? Would farmed grow at the expense of wild?

“Of course aquaculture will expand. If done properly the use of the wild stocks can also expand, if we can learn to behave in the sea”. This was a win-win because “the markets for fish can be a lot bigger than they are today, even though everything is [already] going quite well. The population of earth will need… there will be a market and need for food”.

Caution however on farmed/wild pricing: “There could be many opinions and many considerations. It could change in both ways!” The ministry would not put any restrictions on fish farming except for health and conservation. There were a lot of new ideas, including for trout and mussels.

WF said the rush to farmed cod produced some spectacular collapses in recent years; so where to now?

“Efforts to do cod farming are very important. But what’s in the future? That’s too complicated to answer… it’s not the role of the minister to say ‘this [or that] should be stopped’”. It would be for the specialists in institutes to answer that, not the minister, they said.

EU & politics

Jón Bjarnason has gone on record against Iceland joining the EU. They agreed that polls on joining vary, in a range of 30:70 against, sometimes 40:60. In terms of stocks and quotas they feel they can have an “okay connection with the EU countries…We have migrating stocks that go in our area and theirs”.

If Iceland joined, would its experience of local and regional stock management help those countries who want it in the reform of the CFP?

They said there was no point talking about ‘what happens if’, “…since we believe that we aren’t going to join EU, and obviously a population of 300,000 people aren’t going to be any major force in EU”. They added “… fishing control is not in the hands of the Member States of the EU, but in the hands of Brussels…” Back in January, a Reuter/Euractiv report, citing Tomas H. Heidar, Iceland's chief negotiator on mackerel fisheries, said the Icelandic authorities would not object to the EU banning its mackerel ships, pointing out that almost all its catches were landed in its own ports anyway[3].

Were they worried about Arctic shelf claims?

This was Foreign Ministry business, but an important issue for the future. As for oil spills from Arctic exploration, they said they always worry where there is any risk, but they were keeping on an eye on the situation

WF asked about recent talks which Iceland is said to have had with the Russians. WF got a ‘no comment’, but they added they have had “good connections” with the Russians.

Whaling has Iceland at odds with EU states. Whale-watching revenue may have boomed, but was the killing worth the damage to Iceland’s reputation when it only generated a small return in tax revenue?

They said there had been claims they would lose markets and tourists because of whaling and “that everything would close down. Nothing of this has turned out to be a reality”. Sometimes the press and politically motivated people over-exerted their influence on the issue, they said, adding: “What is most important, and [we] also think most important for the reputation of Iceland, is that we use our natural resources in a natural sustainable way without taking more than the stocks can easily give, and then our reputation will not be really harmed by that.”

WF could not resist asking mischievously if the engines on iconic cod-war gunboat Þór (Thor, god of thunder, rain and agriculture though not fish) had been overhauled ready for action. It has had several after-lives as a floating eatery – no doubt posh cod and chips were on the menu for tourists.

You are not planning to have a mackerel war or anything, or can one say Þór is on the ‘path of peace’?

“Yes. Definitely, we are not planning any coastal war like we had when we moved our [limit] out to 200 miles...we are only fishing mackerel inside our sovereignty, and, last time we had the row about [cod], we came to a conclusion, quite a fair conclusion…Þór will stay tied up in the harbour and its not going out to war or anything like that!”

[1]Jón Bjarnason & CV: http://www.althingi.is/cv_en.php4?ksfaerslunr=55

[2]http://www.responsiblefisheries.is/

[3]http://www.euractiv.com/en/enlargement/eu-block-mackerel-landings-icelandic-boats-news-501330

Ministry’s who’s who: http://eng.sjavarutvegsraduneyti.is/ministry/personnel/

Iceland’s modern coastguard: http://www.lhg.is/english