The lumpfish fishing season begins Tuesday, March 23, according to new regulations issued by Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson, in all areas except for Breiðafjörður, where it starts May 20. The IMFRI will issue their suggested catch limits on March 31. The new regulations allow the Directorate of Fisheries to cut the season short for all other regions but Breiðafjörður if they come close to finishing this year’s allotted catch, and it also allows fishermen to collect lumpfish roe but leave the fish itself behind. These measures are aimed at eliminating uncertainty among lumpfish fishermen, who are facing a difficult season as anti-bycatch legislation, difficult market conditions and the possibility of catch quotas threaten the stability of independent fishermen and rural fishing communities.
Lumpfish licenses instead of catch quotas
Unlike most fishing in Icelandic waters, lumpfish fishing is controlled by licenses and fishing periods instead of catch quotas. A lumpfish license gives sailors the right to 25 consecutive days of lumpfish fishing in the period between March 23-30 June. In that period, they can fish as much lumpfish as they can, although authorities keep a watchful eye to see their catch doesn’t exceed that recommended by the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Institute (IMFRI). The sea around Iceland is split into seven fishing zones, one of which begins the season much later than the others. To protect bird- and wildlife in the area, fishermen in inner Breiðafjörður start their season May 20, much later than others. One of the small boat owners’ main reason for continuing the current system is it’s a system that works – usually. Last year, however, Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór cut the lumpfish season short as fishermen in North and East Iceland had such a good season they were nearing the limit of what experts at the IMFRI believe the lumpfish stock can handle. This was a blow to Breiðafjörður fishermen, as the season there starts later to protect bird- and wildlife in the area.
Opposition from small boat owners
Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór has presented a bill in Parliament that would make lumpfish fishing subject to catch quotas, but the bill has seen fierce opposition from The National Association of Small Boat Owners. While the majority of lumpfish license holders support the bill, as it would be a great financial boon for them, the bill would make it harder for independent fishermen to gain access to lumpfish fishing. As it is, lumpfish fishing is one of the few types of fishing you can get into without owning or renting catch quotas, which requires funds. Last year’s catch disparity was one of the main reasons Kristján Þór presented the catch quota bill, which would make it easier to manage lumpfish catch, but at the moment, most signs indicate that the bill won’t pass parliament this year, at least not in time for this year’s lumpfish season.
Global pandemic affects lumpfish prices
Due to the global pandemic, global lumpfish prices are low. The most valuable part of the lumpfish is its roe, while the fish itself is secondary in terms of monetary value. The lumpfish is mostly exported to China, while lumpfish roe is exported to Europe. The roe is a luxury commodity, so during times of global pandemic when many restaurants are closed, demand in Europe is low. In China, the demand for the fish itself is non-existent. As the price for the fish is hitting rock bottom, this year’s regulation allows fishermen to collect lumpfish roe but leave the fish itself behind out on the ocean, a novelty for lumpfish regulations, which usually require fishermen to land all of their catch.
Under such difficult market conditions, it is normal for license holders to hold off on lumpfish fishing and focus on other, more lucrative types of fishing, but as 200 Mílur has reported, the prospect of catch quotas could make lumpfish fishermen afraid to skip this year’s fishing season. If the valuable catch quotas are distributed based on catch history like the bill currently proposed suggests, fishermen want to make sure they get their piece of the lumpfish pie. According to the Federation of Small Boat Owners Chairman Arthur Bogason, fears of inactive license holders rushing to fish for lumpfish are not keeping him up at night. His feeling, based on conversations with small boat owners across the country, is that there’s not a rush towards lumpfish fishing, as one season of fishing would hardly result in enough of a catch history to accrue much catch quota, calculated on the basis of catch history from 2013-2019.
An uncertain future for lumpfish fishing
The reason the Breiðafjörður fishermen start later than others is to minimise bird and seal bycatch. The amount of bycatch in lumpfish fishing is a problem, one that could possibly threaten the future of lumpfish fishing. According to Arthur, lumpfish fishermen are continuing their efforts this year to minimise bycatch. In addition to harming wildlife, bycatch is a nuisance for fishermen and can damage fishing gear. Last year, the pandemic affected the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute’s ability to conduct in-person investigations of bycatch, jeopardising future export to American markets on grounds of the US Marine Mammal Protection act. While lumpfish export to the US isn’t extensive by any means, lumpfish bycatch could affect US export of Cod, a much more lucrative business. The MMPA taking effect was postponed by one year, giving authorities a little more time to find a solution to the problem but minimising bycatch as much as the MMPA requires is still near-impossible, meaning that as lumpfish fishermen head out next March 23, the future is still uncertain.