Innovation the driving force of sustainable fisheries

02 Sep 2014
Mackerel shoal close to shore in Iceland

Mackerel shoal close to shore in Iceland

Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, speaks to WF&A about the Icelandic fishing industry.

WF&A: Thank you Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson for speaking with us today. Firstly, please can you give us an overview of the status of Iceland’s fisheries?

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson: Firstly, it is important to bear in mind how immensely important the fisheries are for Iceland, economically and socially. The fisheries sector accounts for around 40% of all goods exported and provides over one quarter of all foreign currency earnings. It is a major provider to our economy and very important in terms of rural development. Fortunately, the fisheries sector, as a whole, is economically quite strong.

Most of our local fish stocks are in a healthy state, particularly so the cod stock which is the most important single stock and has been growing steadily in recent years.  We believe that we are benefitting from responsible and cautious policy in controlling our fisheries.

Secondly, the markets for fisheries products, while variable in time and between areas, have generally been quite favourable in recent years.

Thus, looking at the sector as a whole, it is being operated with acceptable returns and is economically healthy, as we can best see from the fact that there is now considerable investment in the sector, which, unfortunately, has been lacking for quite a long time.

The Icelandic fleet is finally in the process of being renewed – what does this mean for the Icelandic fishing sector?

As I mentioned before, investment in the fisheries sector has been unacceptably low for quite a period for a multitude of reasons. Thus, the fishing fleet has grown old and many of our ships are not as efficient as the most modern vessels, for instance with respect to fuel consumption etc. So, the renewal we are now seeing is very timely and promising for the future.

It has been reported that the Icelandic cod stock is recovering dramatically, but the fishermen do not understand why cod quotas are not higher – are there plans to increase the TAC for cod in the near future?

It is true indeed that the cod stock has recovered from a weak status some two decades ago and we have been successful in managing the stock back to good health and it is now standing strong. This has not been easy, either for politicians or stakeholders, as great interests were at stake. Difficult decisions regarding cuts in fishing levels had to be made, meaning sacrifices for fishermen and vessel owners, communities and the national economy. But these measures have given positive results benefitting both the cod stock and the nation as whole. Decisions on fishing levels are made based on scientific advice and it is, in my opinion, important to stick to that road. Having said that, it is also important to review the science regularly, listen to and discuss the views of fishermen, and long term harvesting rules etc.

Fishermen are also concerned that Iceland’s resource tax (the equivalent of a 48% income tax on fishing companies) will gradually force many smaller operators out of business – are there any plans to make changes to this tax?

The fishing fee was increased dramatically under the previous government, so indeed many smaller and medium sized companies were forced to reconsider their business model. The goal of the current government is to tune the fishing fee as much as possible in relation to profits of the fisheries.

This is tricky - it is obvious that larger and more concentrated companies are more profitable than smaller companies which, however, are extremely important for the diversity of our industry and for rural development. We are working on a bill that, among other things, has provisions on the fishing fee which will be lower than it was under the last government, aiming at taking into consideration the different forms of companies.  The fishing fee must not be so high that it discourages innovation and investment which is the driving force for higher value of products but, at the same time, it has to secure a fair and reasonable payment from those who hold the fishing rights and benefit from the valuable resources.

Results from the latest Nordic Mackerel Survey (coordinated between the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland and Norway) have been released, which conclude that the estimated mackerel stock in Iceland is similar to previous years, has increased in Greenland, and has dramatically reduced in Faroese and Norwegian waters. What is the current situation in Iceland with regards to the mackerel dispute and how will these results affect mackerel negotiations in the future?

As is well known, the EU, the Faroe Islands and Norway reached an agreement on the mackerel in March, leaving Iceland out, after the four coastal states failed to reach an overall agreement. It is no secret that the reason we could not close an overall deal was that Norway did not accept the share for Iceland that we had reached an agreement on with the EU and also the extremely high fishing level that we considered totally irresponsible.

Iceland remains willing to negotiate an agreement and has made that absolutely clear to the other parties, again after the agreement reached in March.  But the terms have to be realistic and all parties have to be willing to negotiate. Now we have the results from the common Nordic trawl survey conducted this summer which confirms, once again, the great abundance of mackerel in Icelandic waters and I hope that our partners take account of that so that we can close the matter this autumn. That is important to all of us who are jointly responsible for the sustainable management of the mackerel stock.

Iceland Responsible Fisheries is the sustainable fishing certification programme for wild catch fish in Icelandic waters – are there any plans to broaden the programme to include aquaculture or even to fisheries worldwide?

The answer is no. The IRF certification programme is a national programme, the main criterion of which is a scientifically acknowledged fisheries management system. As for aquaculture in Iceland, which is a growing industry, at least some companies are looking at a different environmental and quality certification.

The Icelandic Fisheries Exhibition will be held from 25-27 September – why is the exhibition so important to the Icelandic fishing industry and what are your hopes for this year’s exhibition?

Well, we are one of the world’s largest fishing nations. Fisheries are the backbone of the Icelandic economy, it is built into the Icelandic DNA that we are a fishing nation. It is therefore very relevant to hold an exhibition such as this one here. We have success stories to share and I am certain that our colleagues and counterparts from other countries can whisper their words of wisdom to us. Even though we compete for markets we should all have the same goals; how we can manage our stocks sustainably and maximise the value of fisheries, worldwide. Innovation is the driving force here, incredible opportunities lie in the future, when we hopefully will manage to multiply the value of each fish caught with better technology, leading to better utilisation. I hope that the exhibition will give us a glimpse into that future.

Thank you for speaking to us.