Iceland calls for a fair solution on mackerel
Carly Wills interviews Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, following his call for an early meeting of the Coastal States to find a solution to the ongoing dispute over mackerel catch in the North Atlantic.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to speak to World Fishing & Aquaculture. Could you please briefly explain the mackerel dispute between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the European Union and Norway?
A: Thank you very much for speaking with me. This dispute centres on mackerel fishing rights in the North Atlantic and the current debate between the Coastal States in whose waters mackerel is present: EU states (including Scotland, Ireland and Denmark), Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands.
Each country sets a voluntary quota on the amount of mackerel it will catch. But because the practice has been such that these quotas are self-imposed and there is no limit on the collective catch, mackerel is being overfished. This has led to a situation where all states are overfishing. Instead of looking for a solution that grants everyone a fair share, certain EU states are blaming Iceland, demanding that Iceland reduces its catch and threatening trade sanctions, such as blocking Icelandic ships from EU harbours and banning imports of products resulting from Iceland’s catch.
Since 2010, Iceland has repeatedly offered concrete proposals that would have solved the dispute, including recommendations that all parties take equal cuts. These efforts were rejected. In early July 2013, Iceland issued a call for the Coastal States to resume negotiations and we are pleased that all parties have accepted the offer. We are optimistic that we can reach a solution that ensures a fair share for all and safeguards the environmental and economic interests of the Coastal States.
Q: What is Iceland’s argument for setting a mackerel quota that the EU and Norway believes is putting the health of the stock in jeopardy?
A: First let me say that Iceland’s quota is not putting the health of the mackerel stock in jeopardy. Any claims to the contrary are not based on facts.
This year, Iceland lowered its mackerel catch by 15% to 123,182 tons, in alignment with scientific recommendations from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The EU and Norway also cut its quota by 15%. However, even with this reduction, the EU and Norway claimed 90% of ICES’ recommended catch level of 542,000 tons, a vastly oversized portion given the changed migration pattern of the stock.
Iceland is confident that a science-based solution can be reached over mackerel catch quotas that is fair to all the coastal states. However, for this to happen the EU and Norway must acknowledge the massive shift of the mackerel population into Iceland’s waters over past few years. Quotas should take due account of the present mackerel migratory patterns, rather than being solely based on historical fishing patterns. To claim otherwise is counterproductive and puts the health of the stock in jeopardy.
Research tells us that the mackerel stock has grown tremendously in Iceland’s waters in recent years. Recent studies by marine-research organisations in Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands found 1.5 million tons of mackerel in Icelandic waters in 2012, compared to 1.1 million tons of mackerel in 2010. The increase is a result of rising water temperatures. Now up to 30% of the entire mackerel population is in Iceland’s waters during the summer feeding season.
If the majority of fish are in Iceland’s water, why is Iceland being pressured and threatened to bear the burden of cuts to the total mackerel catch? The fact is that all states are overfishing so all must reduce their catch.
Q: Why have you decided to call for an early meeting of the Coastal States? Is Iceland worried that sanctions will be taken against the country, as is currently happening with the Faroe Islands with regards to herring ?
A: Resolving this issue cannot wait and that is why we have called this meeting. Iceland is leading the drive for a diplomatic solution and again has demonstrated the unequivocal commitment of our government to finding an outcome that benefits all.
We are looking forward to hosting all the Coastal States at the negotiating table as soon as possible. To help protect the ecosystem and our economies, we must carefully consider scientific data and recommendations from ICES to come to a mutually beneficial solution. Threatening illegal sanctions which are in breach of World Trade Organisation rules will not resolve this debate and will only block a diplomatic solution.
Indeed, if sanctions are imposed, they will have serious consequences for the Icelandic economy, which depends on the fishing industry on a much larger scale than with other European nations. But this will not only hurt the Icelandic economy it will also impact the economies of those EU member states who import Icelandic mackerel. The impact upon the livelihoods of thousands of seafood industry workers in Iceland, the UK and elsewhere who depend on the health of the mackerel stock, as well as their families, would be significant.
Q: What is the ideal outcome of the meeting for Iceland?
A: We very much hope that we can find a science-based solution that is fair to all. Cooperation and diplomacy, not illegal sanctions, are needed to manage the stock together. Our position is clear and unchanged: we want to reach a fair, lasting solution for all of Europe’s coastal states. This solution must be based on fair and transparent rules, and a level playing-field for all involved.
The EU’s decision in late July to move forward with sanctions against the Faroe Islands sets the wrong precedent.
Q: If the European Union refuses to drop the threat of sanctions, will Iceland have to give in and cut its mackerel quota to the levels requested?
Threatening illegal sanctions which violate World Trade Organisation rules will not resolve this debate and will only delay a diplomatic solution. We stand firm in our belief that a science-based solution can be found and will not give in to the EU’s bullying of smaller states.
To help protect the ecosystem and our economies, we must come to a mutually beneficial solution. We look to September’s negotiations meeting with great anticipation and very much hope that a resolution is found.
Q: If no agreement can be made and the EU presses on with the threat of sanctions (which Iceland has said are illegal according to World Trade Organisation rules), will Iceland take legal action?
A: In Iceland, we take the obligation of sustainability seriously, and we are confident that we can find a fair and lasting solution through diplomacy and dialogue, not by threatening counter-productive sanctions. Such measures are in breach of World Trade Organisation rules (articles XI and XIII), go beyond protocol 9 of the EEA agreement and should be reserved for the handful of rogue states and harmful regimes that exist in the world, not a close ally of Europe and NATO member like Iceland. It is disproportional, unjust and out of context.
If the EU were to proceed with this excessive path, Iceland will respond through the appropriate international legal channels.
Q: Finally, is there anything else you would like to add on this subject?
A: We did not ask for mackerel to swim into our waters. In fact, mackerel as a pelagic fish swims close to the water surface, and actually blocks our access to the more valuable cod below. Furthermore, with their voracious appetite, they are eating into the food stocks of other fish, and even competing with bird species. This has drastically reduced Iceland’s puffin population, for example.
The recent changes in the seas around us call for a different approach. The Coastal States must come together and rethink the management of this natural resource. Up to 30% of the total mackerel population is now in Iceland’s waters during the summer feeding season. With this in mind, the EU and Norway cannot continue to claim 90% of the total recommended catch. If Iceland is only allowed a share of the remaining 10% with the Faroe Islands and Russia, this will tip its delicate ecosystem out of balance.
As a fishing nation that depends on the sustainable use of the rich resources in our seas, we ask our European friends to join us in making a genuine effort to find a fair and lasting solution.
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