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Give a Man a Fish

Taking stock of Iceland's coastal fishing system

Words by
Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photography by

It’s just after six in the morning and Guðmundur Geirdal is pouring his first cup of coffee. It’s spring, so the sun has already been up for a couple of hours but a light veiling of clouds means that there’s a fresh snap to the air. Down by the Arnarstapi harbour, the squeaky cries of the seabirds are loud enough to drown out the murmured chatting of the other fishermen preparing their boats for the day.

The tiny harbour has four wharves and enough room to comfortably hold around 15 boats. Today, about 50 of them are packed into tight rows and there are grizzled sailors everywhere, checking the oil, fiddling about with ropes and containers, and drinking jet-black coffee strong enough to add a few grey hairs to their chest. By the time the clock strikes 6:30 AM, each sailor boards their boat, and, one by one, they sail out to the fishing grounds. 

It’s the first day of the coastal fishing season, and for the next three months, these independent fishermen on their small boats will let their lines out each morning, each bringing back just about 774 kilos [1,706 lbs] of sparkling fresh cod each afternoon. For Guðmundur, steering his boat away from shore, cup of coffee still in his hand and the engine purring, this is the best part of his day. 

A life at sea

On this subarctic island, where winters are long and dark and life was a daily struggle, fishermen command respect comparable to what other countries reserve for their troops. Their hours were long, their work was gruelling, and every time they boarded an open boat and sailed out into the North Atlantic, they were risking life and limb. Even today, when bigger ships and better equipment have removed much of the danger, the importance of fish in Iceland can hardly be overstated – it’s the foundation of our economy in more ways than one.

Guðmundur grew up on an even smaller island off the mainland, Grímsey. It’s so far north that it straddles the Arctic Circle and is populated mostly by gulls, puffins, and auks alongside a handful of humans. He started sailing out occasionally with his father at the age of seven. By the time he was 12, he and his brother would go out without any adults, and at 14 he’d graduated to solo trips. He’s spent most of four or five decades of his life going to sea.

In his lifetime, the fishing industry has transformed. Technology has taken vast leaps, ships are bigger, safer, and more productive and the work is easier. The industry is also making significantly more money. But there’s also been consolidation in the industry and instead of independent sailors, most fishermen are now salaried workers. For the remaining independent small boat fishermen, adjusting to the limitations of the regulations now in place is a struggle.

“We were sailing out from Grindavík in -15°C [5°F]. It’s nonsense, really.”

Coastal fishing

When Guðmundur started fishing, there were no limits placed on what a fisherman on a small boat could catch. They’d sell their fish directly to the processing plant for, admittedly, a pittance, but if they wanted to, they could go fishing all year round, all day and all night. In the 1980s, following a period of rapid technological development within the fishing industry, Iceland introduced a fishing management system to protect stocks from overfishing and to regulate the business. For the most part, it’s considered a success, as it has made large fisheries more productive while preventing overfishing, and stabilised an industry that previously was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy.

But there were some side effects. When the system was instituted, the share in the overall catch quota was distributed based on fishing experience. Any who wanted to join the profession after that had to buy their way into the system. These days, you can’t just buy a boat and start fishing. You have to pay for permission. Since quota prices are prohibitively expensive for most independent fishermen, many choose to rent quota instead. 

Plenty of fish

Even if it’s the first day of coastal fishing, Guðmundur has been hard at work for some time. “I go fishing all year round, even though that’s nonsense really. I was line fishing in December and January.” At that time of year, there’s about 5 hours of daylight in Icelandic waters and a high probability of storms. “We were sailing out from Grindavík in -15°C [5°F].” On the off season, Guðmundur catches saithe on rented quota. “It’s hard to get it in the trawls so the larger fisheries rent out the quota for low prices.” Despite the fisheries’ disinterest, or perhaps because of it, saithe fetches decent prices at the fish market. “You can get by off the saithe,” Guðmundur shrugs. In April, he switches gears. “I did lumpfish in April, that’s OK too, a little bit of a change.” Lumpfish isn’t a highly sought-after fish, but its roe is valued on the Asian market. It’s inconsequential enough that authorities don’t even issue lumpfish quotas, you can fish as much lumpfish as you want during a set period of time. 

By the time spring rolls around it’s time for coastal fishing. Fishermen who sign up for coastal fishing can access a pool of cod quota that’s set aside for this purpose. This year, the independent fishermen can catch up to 10,000 tonnes of cod, just under 5% of the total annual quota. For the number of boats wanting to partake, It’s not enough. While the season lasts from the beginning of May and throughout August, last year, the quota ran out in mid-July. There’s a high likelihood that will happen again this year. Independent fishers are on paper protected by the patchy regulatory framework that ostensibly secures their right to work in the profession but in reality has the fishers on a tight leash. Guðmundur explains: “They added all sorts of provisions to the system so it’s almost impossible for people to live off of, while still claiming that the system is open to anyone.” 

“I think all islanders have a touch of a need for exploration. Seeing a new coastline.”

Thrown a fishbone

When the Fishing Management system was established, it was based on the allocation of catch quotas to individual vessels on the basis of their catch performance, generally referred to as “the quota system”. Later generations of fishermen entering the profession did not have the opportunity to earn their quota, having to buy their way in. 

In 2001, two men in the Westfjords had had enough of the system that required fishermen to lease the right to fish from others who had received it free of charge. In an effort to challenge the system’s validity, they announced their intention to fish without permits. In September that year, they sailed out and brought home a catch of 5,292 kg of gutted cod, 289 kg haddock, 4 kg catfish and 606 kg plaice. For their crime, they were fined 1,000,000 ISK (ISK 2,600,000 when adjusted for inflation [€17,300 $18,600]). Their company was subsequently declared bankrupt and one of the men lost their home. 

They then took their case to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, which ruled in 2007 that it wasn’t the fishermen who were engaging in unlawful fishing, it was the system that was broken, and that by allowing catch quota to be sold, leased and inherited, instead of reverting back to the state, the government was locking out future generations from benefitting from this industry. One of the ways the Icelandic authorities responded to this criticism was by creating the current coastal fishing system, tacking it onto an already complicated fishing management system. This way, they’d allocate some quota to independent fishermen, but not enough to support year-round work.

In light of the coastal fishing quota pool repeatedly running out before the end of the season, in addition to general displeasure with the limitations of the coastal fishing, both in terms of time and catch allowance, the recently founded Coastal Fishing Union has discussed seeking further measures. 

Fishy framework

The system is a complicated one, with regulations for boat length, fishing gear, engines, fish species, and so on. Authorities’ attempts to improve it through the years, have only made it more convoluted, a patchwork of regulations requiring a whole separate dictionary to understand. The fishermen, admittedly, could make grumbling a competitive sport, but they do have plenty to grumble about. “You can sail out 48 days in total, 12 days per month during the summer with a mandatory three-day weekend, Friday to Sunday: OK. Some people would think that was enough, but no, you can only go out half a day each time, so these aren’t full days but half days: OK. But then they tell you that you can only catch a maximum amount of 774 kilos per day and you can only have four hand reels. I don’t know why they feel it is necessary to interfere in those decisions. Then it’s not enough to have a limit on how much each boat can catch, there’s also a total limit, so if everyone is doing well, that pool of catch quota can run out before the end of the season.” 

For the independent fisherman who’s already facing tough competition with the large fisheries, the strict regulations feel like overkill. “Then there’s the surveillance system.” Guðmundur sighs. “You have all sorts of live surveillance systems on the boat and if any of them get turned off, you get called back to land. No dangerous criminal in the country has this amount of surveillance.” He jovially suggests that maybe it would just be easier if they fit all independent fishermen with electric collars that would automatically start to contract if they’re not in harbour at the right time. 

But the thing is, for a fisher, it’s all worth it. “The work is just the best, fishing by hand reel is, to me, the most fun type of fishing you can do.” Guðmundur’s tone softens. A fisherman from the age of 14, he took his own kids sailing at that age. “It was such a great way to get to know my kids. I spent a lot of time away when they were young due to the nature of my work, but I remember when I took my girl out her first summer. For the first week, she didn’t have much to say but by week two she’d start talking, there was no one else around to talk to! By the end of the summer, I knew everything about the cutest boy in school. It created a really strong bond. They might have thought it sucked but I loved it.”

“I’m never nervous. There’s nothing that can happen to me out here.”

Swimming in circles

Fishing is hard work but to Guðmundur the type of coastal fishing you do in the summer is easy. “Coastal fishing is fine for old men like me. It’s a joke, really. You could easily do it in your slippers. When the fishing’s good, you can catch those 7-800 kilos in 15 minutes. And I have.” While the coastal fishing quota isn’t big enough to warrant large investments, Guðmundur maintains that it’s easy enough to start. “If you’re OK with sailing on an older, smaller boat, it’s fine. You don’t invest in an ISK 30 million [$213,000, €199,000] boat for this, but if you get a boat for ISK 6-7 million [$43,000, €40,000], you should be able to catch enough your first summer to pay it off.”

Arnarstapi is popular among coastal fishers, as evident by the tightly packed harbour. “The atmosphere is great. We have coffee together and it’s wonderful to sail out, looking out over the rocks and the birds. Reminds you of the old childhood home.” The fishing grounds are close by, sometimes you can start fishing within 15 minutes. “Or up to an hour and a half,” Guðmundur hedges. “Based on weather, and if I’m going for saithe that stays further from land. Sometimes you bet on the wrong fishing ground and then have to go somewhere else, that also happens.”


It's not for everyone.

Guðmundur has been sailing from Arnarstapi for a while, but he’s seen almost every harbour in Iceland. During his working week, he sleeps on the boat. With nothing tying him down, if he gets bored at Arnarstapi, he can simply sail to the Westfjords tomorrow and continue working from there. “I think all islanders have a touch of a need for exploration. Seeing a new coastline.” He knows most of the other guys who are sailing this season. “We know the area inside out. The guys who’ve been there for longer know it better, they let the others know where the fishing is good. We help each other out.”

There’s a reason he chooses to sail from Arnarstapi in West Iceland instead of going east. “If you were to fish by hook and line all year round, you’d start in the south in January, February, even April. In May, you’d move to Breiðafjörður, and by June you’d be in the southernmost part of the Westfjords. July in Suðureyri and Bolungarvík, August in Siglufjörður and in September you’re in Langanes. The fish travels that way.” This explains another strife related to the coastal fishing rules. The country is divided into regions and fishermen are expected to land their fish within their region, but the regions don’t have equal access to the fish. “That’s caused tension: the guys in the Northeast are sore that the quota pool has been emptied in July when the fish is just arriving in their region. It used to be divided by territories, with each territory getting a set amount to fish. The problem was that the Westfjords, the area with the most fishers, would catch their quota in five or six days, while the guys in the east had enough fishing for more than 40 days, up to 60.” Guðmundur shakes his head. “I understand them wanting that deal back, I do. But I don’t think we’re ever getting more than 48 days now.” 

“I’m not right in the head, I always believe it’s going to be a good day.”

Liquid capital

From the moment the Fishing Management system was implemented, the right to uncaught fish started gathering into fewer and fewer hands. Not only could quota be sold, it could also be offered as collateral for mortgages. In a book called Gambling Debt; Iceland’s Rise and Fall in the Global Economy, academics describe the relationship between the fishing industry and Iceland’s overinflated banking system in the early aughts. As quota prices grew, so did the loans that the banks could offer and the income the banks derived from these loans. In a matter of years, the seafood industry and the banks had become so intertwined that any radical rethinking of the fishing management system could potentially negatively impact the country’s economy. Anthropologist Níels Einarsson mentions that as early as 2000, a committee was founded to calculate what would happen if the authorities were to recall some of the quota and redistribute it. “[It] concluded that recapturing quotas at as little as 5% per annum would lead to a 42% decrease in the overall capital value of fish firms and cause much ‘unrest’ among financial institutions.” Following the banking collapse in 2008, authorities again tried to revamp the quota system. By that point, fishing industry loans were such a big part of banks’ income that any significant changes would run the risk of another collapse. And recently, more than a decade later, the Ministry of Fisheries has appointed four work groups consisting of 30 people in total, whose role is to fix the system once and for all. Guðmundur, for one, isn’t getting his hopes up. 

“I’m being way too negative, it’s really a lot of fun.”

The general feeling among the independent fishermen is that they’re constantly battling a complicated system that seems set up to make fishers’ life difficult. There are currently two organisations fighting for independent fishermen’s rights: the National Association of Small Boat Owners and the Coastal Fishing Union. “Those guys are great, but the bad part is that they’re all loners. These are guys who’ve always been the captain of their own ship and have never had to worry about anyone’s opinion but their own. Getting them to unite to help some guy from Bakkafjörður, that’s never going to happen.” When Guðmundur was approached about a seat on the board, he replied with a now-familiar mix of frankness and cynicism. “I told them that if they were ever in need of a little pessimism and bad attitude, they could call me. But it’s much better to get young men who have faith that it can get better. Unfortunately, I don’t have that faith anymore.”

"Coastal fishing is fine for old men like me. It's a joke really, you could easily do it in your slippers."

Fairweather fishing

Guðmundur has never run into any major issues at sea. “Well,” he adds, “in the old days, you’d experience bad weather at sea that hadn’t been forecast. It would take you several hours to cover the few kilometres back to land and, really, you were fighting for your life.” That would happen maybe once every other summer. “But today, that just doesn’t happen. In my view, that’s the biggest reason we haven’t lost any ships lately. Boats have gotten better, sure, but first and foremost, the forecasts have improved so much.” He breaks for a second. “But I’m never nervous. There’s nothing that can happen to me out here.”

For all his self-professed pessimism, Guðmundur is quick to reply when asked what he thinks would fix the system. “In my opinion, all hand reel fishing should be unlimited. The maximum amount you’re able to catch that way is so small as to be insignificant. Even if every single Icelander went out handline fishing, it wouldn’t make a dent in the overall fish stocks.” Unlike when it is caught in a net or trawl, a fish, he explains, doesn’t bite a hook unless it’s hungry, it doesn’t bite at night, and it doesn’t bite during spawning season. “It’s impossible to affect stocks this way. Not to mention that you can’t really fish in more than 1 or 2% of Iceland’s territory, as the water has to be just the right depth. You don’t go anywhere that’s deeper than 100 fathoms and that’s pretty close to the coast.” Guðmundur isn’t done listing the benefits of small hook and line boats. They have less impact on the biosphere, they don’t harm the seabed, and, while they do use oil, they charge batteries on their way out to use while fishing. 

While Guðmundur enjoys talking about his work, he’s usually alone on his boat. And while he admits that now and then he’d appreciate some company, he likes it that way. “I have two favourite parts of my day. Sailing out to the fishing grounds is always so much fun. You’re so excited and full of faith that the day will be a good one. Then it’s always good to land if you’ve had a good day.” He pauses. “But then again, I’m not right in the head, I always believe it’s going to be a good day. If you were to ask me how the work had been for the past 40 or 50 years, I’d tell you that the weather was mostly great and the fishing good. But for a few decades, I kept a diary. I’ve tried reading them twice but each time, I was overwhelmed with how awful it sounded. This isn’t me trying to be blindly optimistic, I simply genuinely expect every new day to be a good one.” 

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