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Photo: Golli. Salmon farming in Arnarfjörður, Westfjords.

Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

The administration and supervision of open-net fish farming in Iceland are weak and fragmented, according to a newly-released report from the Icelandic National Audit Office (INAO). The Minister of Food, Fisheries and Agriculture says fish farming regulations are an unclear patchwork and that the government will act on the report’s findings. RÚV reported first.

Rapid development with little oversight

The report was commissioned by the Ministry of Food, Fisheries, and Agriculture and was presented to the Constitutional and Supervisory Committee yesterday. It paints a dark picture of the administration and supervision of the fish farming industry, which has grown rapidly in Iceland over the past decade. For example, changes in fish farming legislation that were intended to promote the growth and development of the sector, have not been followed up by strengthening its administration and supervision.

Consolidation of ownership, directionless development, and operation of open-net sea pens have become established in areas without much discussion or direct action on the part of the government. Farming areas have been allocated for the long term free of charge, and there are examples of fish farming zones overlapping with sailing routes, protected areas for telecommunications and electricity cables, and obstructing navigational lighthouses.

According to the INAO report, monitoring of the sector needs to be strengthened. The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute has pointed out that it does not have the resources required to define fish farming zones. The report says that the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) did not consider additional monitoring necessary despite uncovering serious and even repeated deviations from existing regulations.

Open-net salmon farms dominate industry

Open-net fish farming in Icelandic waters has grown more than tenfold between 2014 and 2021. Yearly production rose from under 4,000 tonnes to nearly 45,000 tonnes over this period. More than 99% of that production was farmed salmon.

The export value of agricultural products in 2021 was more than ISK 36 billion [$254 million; 237 million]. Most of that figure, or 76%, was farmed salmon, according to RÚV. The aquaculture industry has played a role in supporting development in the Westfjords and Eastfjords, but the largest fish farming companies in Iceland are Norwegian-owned.

Legislation will take time to amend

“It is quite clear that the regulatory framework around this is a patchwork, is unclear, ineffective, and so on,” stated Minister of Food, Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir. “We’ve been chasing an industry that has grown very quickly.” Svandís stated that it was unlikely changes to legislation would go through this session as they require considerable preparation, but that there were many suggestions in the report the government would act on “immediately.”

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