Optimistic about the future

01 Sep 2008

Iceland's Minister of Fisheries, Einar K Guðfinnsson

World Fishing: What are the main strengths of the Icelandic fisheries industry today?

Einar K Guðfinnsson: There are a number of things that one can mention. Of course, we have a very able management team, a very well-trained and experienced workforce and we have a deep-rooted knowledge of how to run the fishing industry, including the marketing part.

In addition, we have also tried to organise the fisheries in a way that we approach it as a serious industry that plays a role in promoting good living standards in Iceland - so the strength of our fisheries lies, among other things, in that. From our point of view, it is essential to regard fisheries as a serious business adhering to the strict principals of market society.

WF: And the weaknesses?

EKG: Of course we have weaknesses in our industry. The threat to any fishing industry is the status of the major fish stocks at any time. For the time being we have seen a decline in the cod stocks, which has caused difficulties for us. However, we regard it as a temporary setback.

Also, fluctuations in the strength of the krona has caused difficulties for us.

WF: What is the current status of Icelandic fish stocks?

EKG: The greatest disappointment is that fact that we have been obliged to decrease the cod quotas by one third. We see this as a temporary measure which should reverse in a few years time. However, many of the fish stocks are either in a stable or good position.

We have seen a decline in other stocks such as capelin, but on the other hand we have seen an enormous increase in herring, so the strength of the individual fish species varies.

WF: You have decided to keep the cod quota at 130,000t for 2008/2009, despite advice from the Marine Research Institute to lower it to 124,000t – what is your reason for this?

EKG: Firstly I would like to point out that there is not a great difference between the two amounts. Our decision last year was to decrease the cod quotas from 193,000t to 130,000t which meant that we would be fishing approximately 20% of the fish stock that year. Our decision was also to make sure that the minimum quota for the next year would be 130,000t again. We did that with reference to the fact that it would be essential for the fishing industry to have some idea of what they could expect for two years time – to make it easier for them to readjust and react to the grave decrease in cod quotas that was decided last year. We knew that decreasing the cod quotas by such a substantial amount would enable us to make a decision that would last at least two years, instead of one year. We are blessed with the fact that despite the fact we have been forced to decrease the quotas, our cod stocks are far from being in danger of extinction. It is just that we are suffering setbacks and we want to react to that in order to facilitate the building up of our cod quotas.

WF: And how do you respond to the fishermen who say that these quotas are too low and that there is a lot more cod in the sea than the scientists say?

EKG: I do hope that the fishermen are right, because if they are right then the difficulty is not as great as we have assumed. However, what I would say to the fishermen is that we do see signs of recovery. We have seen a rapid increase in the size of the spawning stock and fishing mortality has gone down tremendously, which should facilitate a more rapid recovery in the future.

I would furthermore respond to the fishermen by saying that they are right – there is a lot of cod in the Icelandic sea and we are not faced with the same challenges as many other countries that do not even have an alternative as their fish stocks are in such a grave situation. There is, according to the scientists, about 600,000t of cod which is at least four years old in Icelandic waters which is a substantial amount.

WF: Will the capelin quota be lowered as it seems to have failed to show up for its traditional spawning migration around Iceland?

EKG: You are right, the capelin stock has failed to show up. That, of course, has affected the size of the capelin quotas. We take a very cautious approach when we decide on how we should allocate capelin quotas - before we allocate any quotas we reserve 400,000t of capelin for spawning.

The fact that the capelin has not shown up – and there are a complexity of reasons for that – is not due to overfishing at all, it is mainly due to natural fluctuations. The fact that the capelin stock has failed to show up in Icelandic waters has unfortunately been a major contributor to the fact that we have seen a decline in cod quotas. Capelin is the most important feed for cod and as the accessibility to the capelin has been poorer, it has affected the recovery of the cod stocks.

Therefore the capelin quotas have been substantially lowered for next year.

WF: What is the situation regarding fuel prices in Iceland?

EKG: Increasing fuel prices have affected our fisheries enormously. The doubling of oil prices has a negative impact on our fisheries, particularly those which consume the highest amount of oil. I wouldn’t say we are experiencing a “fuel crisis” but it has certainly had a negative impact.

WF: Are you doing anything to help the fishing industry cope with the rising cost of fuel?

EKG: We will never, ever issue any subsidies or anything like that – we are strongly opposed to that, and the industry is opposed to that as well. We are very critical of the nations, including the European Union, that have issued subsidies as we believe it can pose a threat to the well-being of some fish stocks and in the long-run will harm the economy of the fisheries.

However, there are no taxes on the oil sold to Iceland’s fisheries so the room for manoeuvring is actually up to the government to limit.

WF: And how are high fuel prices affecting onward landings and trucking forward into Europe?

EKG: This has obviously translated into higher prices for forwarding fish – we are very dependent on transporting our fish by sea from Iceland to mainland Europe and the UK. The cost of transporting fish has increased both inland in Iceland and transporting to and within Europe.

WF: What role will aquaculture play in the future of Icelandic fisheries?

EKG: We have unfortunately not been successful when it comes to salmon farming. We have made serious attempts and companies have invested considerable amounts of money into it, but I think for the time being it is most likely that we will not see substantial salmon farming in Iceland.

Trout farming, on the other hand, has been successful and will play a dominant role in the trout market.

We are also keen on developing our cod farming further. We have being doing that for years and have learned a lot and made substantial progress. However, we still have a very long and winding road to follow. The government is committed to supporting cod farming in any way possible, in particular by providing the infrastructure and research, however cod farming has to be led by the industry, otherwise it will not succeed. So I am of the opinion that cod farming will play an increased role when it comes to cod processing in Iceland.

WF: What is your view on the Icelandic Fisheries Society’s proposed Iceland eco-label for certifying sustainable fish – is another one really necessary?

EKG: I am very supportive of the Icelandic approach to this idea. We have studied it in detail and it has taken a long time to do that and we are convinced that an Icelandic eco-label could be of use, for us and for the market itself.

With regards to if there are already too many eco-labels, I think that if we provide a good eco-label it will have a role. I believe that in a situation where one eco-label plays a dominant part in the market it can be harmful for the producers concerned.

WF: Is illegal fishing a problem for Iceland today?

EKG: It used to be a substantial problem for fisheries in Reykjanes Ridge in the south west of Iceland – the influx of illegal fishing had a harmful effect on the fisheries there. We took strict measures along with our neighbouring nations – Norway, the EU and NEAFC. With this constructed effort we managed to stop them but we are aware that they can return any time so we are on constant alert.

For the time being illegal fishing is not a problem for us directly. However, indirectly the amount of illegal fisheries products floating around the international market has negative consequences for us, as for others.

WF: Do you stand by the decision to return to commercial whaling, despite international criticism?

EKG: We have now been whaling for six years, so this is not a new decision – the decision was taken in 2003 when we started scientific whaling. We made the decision to resume commercial whaling in 2006 and we have our reasons for doing that, as part of our sustainable utilisation of marine resources. From our point of view this is an essential part of that.

Despite loud protests from some individual companies and organisations it has fortunately not had any negative affect on the Icelandic economy. On the contrary, we have received a very clear signal from the market that they want us to indicate more clearly the Icelandic origin of our products, which they believe is beneficial for the marketing of individual products. From my point of view this is a clear indication that the decision to start whaling has not made any lasting negative impact on our economy.

WF: Are you optimistic about the future of Iceland’s fisheries?

EKG: Yes, I am very optimistic. I think that the credit crunch and the difficulties in the financial market has shown us that, despite predictions otherwise a few years ago, that Iceland’s fishing industry will play a major role in the future as it has until now. A prerequisite for that of course is that we continue our approach towards Icelandic fisheries as a serious business and presume that it will play a role in promoting good living standards in Iceland.

WF: How important is the Icelandic Fisheries Exhibition to Iceland’s fisheries?

EKG: I think it is immensely important – it is a showcase for what we are doing in Iceland and the exhibition attracts thousands of people from abroad who come here to see what is going on. This is an illustration of the fact that Iceland is a great fishing nation and has a long fishing tradition – it is very logical that the exhibition takes place in Iceland. It is also an excellent opportunity for us to express to the general public of Iceland the strength of the fishing industry in general.

WF: What do you expect from the exhibition?

EKG: I expect that we will see a lot of people visiting the exhibition. I also expect to see a thriving industry with lots of new technology emerging which is an expression of our dynamic industry, just as we have experienced from previous editions of the exhibition.