Iceland Moves to Reduce Marine Bycatch in Light of New US Import Regulations

fishing regulations iceland

Icelandic regulators are making moves to conform to new regulations of seafood imports in the United States, according to the latest information from the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries.

In an effort to promote more sustainable fishing practices among exporting nations, the US has announced the introduction of new regulations which limit the acceptable amount of marine bycatch produced by fishing. Originally announced in 2016 with a 5-year grace period for nations to conform to the new regulations, the implementation has been delayed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Icelandic fisheries extra time to meet the new rules.

Especially important in the Icelandic context is the amount of seabirds and seals affected by lumpfish fishing, a fishery traditionally for small boat fishermen. Some Icelanders have expressed concerns that the new regulations will disproportionately affect small-scale rural fishermen, who are already suffering economically.

Read more: US Extends Deadline for Marine Mammal Bycatch Regulations

According to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Iceland has already launched measures in response to the new US regulations.

Increased monitoring is being implemented, using ship logs, drones, and geospatial modelling to better understand the distribution of bycatch.

In response to the poor state of the seal population in Iceland, the direct hunting of seals has been banned. It is now forbidden to shoot seals to scare them away from fish farms, for instance.

Other methods are also being investigated to reduce bycatch, such as the use of sound repellents on fishing gear.

By both increasing the monitoring of wild fishing stocks, and also increasingly monitoring registered bycatch, Icelandic authorities hope to gain a fuller picture of their success in implementing these changes.

Read more: Can Iceland Save its Seals Without Hurting its Fishermen?

Another concern is that the relatively higher bycatch of smaller fisheries, such as lumpfish, could adversely affect the status of larger, more lucrative fisheries, such as cod. According to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, while it is certain that seafood from fisheries with bycatch in excess of US guidelines will be prevented from entering the market, there is as of yet no final word on how seafood from other fisheries will be handled. It is also as of yet unclear whether the steps taken by Icelandic authorities will be considered sufficient to meet the US conditions.

The US regulations, after a delay, are now slated to come into effect on January 1, 2024.



US Extends Deadline for Marine Mammal Bycatch Regulations

iceland fishing

In a recent announcement, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has extended the deadline for the implementation of regulations governing the import of seafood to the US.

Aimed at protecting endangered species and limiting the amount of unnecessary bycatch (what is unintentionally caught by net fishing, which can include seabirds, other species of fish, seals, dolphins, and even small whales), the regulations aim to limit the import of marine products from fisheries where marine mammals are caught. This has potentially large consequences for Iceland, the US being a major export market for Icelandic seafood.

The regulations were originally introduced in 2016 and gave exporting nations a 5-year period to comply with the new US regulations. However, this grace period was extended by a year, and then further delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Can Iceland Save its Seals Without Hurting its Fishermen?

Notably, Iceland lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in 2018 due to the large number of bycatch produced by Icelandic lumpfish fishing. Lumpfish generally stick near the shore and are thus safe from larger trawlers. This fish, prized for its roe, is still fished in small boats with nets. However, net fishing also produces large amounts of unwanted bycatch.

Although Iceland has taken steps in recent years to minimizing the environmental impact of net fishing, it is a complicated situation for Icelandic fishermen, as it is generally the small boat fishermen who will be under the most pressure from the current regulations.

Iceland’s small boat fishermen have already been sidelined in many ways by the current quota system. Although the bycatch problem is indeed important, it leaves some wondering if the burden of environmental responsibility is being placed excessively on small, independent fishermen.



Up to a Third of Catch Discarded, Drone Surveillance Reveals

fishing lumpfish net

With the help of drone surveillance, Iceland’s Directorate of Fisheries has discovered ten times as many discard cases in the fishing industry in 2021 than in 2020. So far this year, the Directorate has processed at least 120 cases involving fishing companies, both large and small, that have discarded catch back into the ocean. Some of the cases involved the discard of two or more fish per minute and up to one third of a vessel’s total catch. Kjarninn reported first.

Ten times more discard cases discovered with drones

Until 2021, the Directorate of Fisheries recorded around 10 cases of discard annually. Since introducing drone surveillance at the beginning of this year, that number has increased more than tenfold. The vast majority of these cases concluded with a written letter from the Directorate of Fisheries stating that catch should not be thrown back into the sea, while one case resulted in the temporary suspension of a fishing licence and three with formal warnings.

The drone surveillance is mostly carried out from land, and as a consequence, the cases mostly involve smaller or medium-sized vessels that fish closer to the shore. Some drone surveillance was carried out from ships last spring, however. Four of this year’s cases involve bottom trawlers of the largest size. Elín Björg Ragnarsdóttir, head of the Directorate of Fisheries’ surveillance department, told RÚV that the spike in cases likely does not reflect an increase in the practice of discarding catch, rather simply that more instances are being discovered, though this cannot be confirmed.

An international problem

Discards constitute the portion of a catch of fish that is thrown back into the ocean and not retained on board a fishing vessel. The percentage of such fish that survives the process varies by species. Fish may be discarded due to being an unmarketable species, being below minimum landing size, or being fish that cannot be landed due to quota restrictions. Discard in the North Sea, for example, has been estimated at nearly 1 million tonnes annually, one-third of the total weight landed each year.

Discarding catch at sea is illegal according to Icelandic law. Icelandic regulations require fishing vessels to retain most fish for which quotas have been set or species for which a market exists.

Lumpfish Season Starts Next Week Amid Catch Quota Uncertainty


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.

Photo. Golli. Lumpfish fishing in East Iceland.

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.

Fishermen working at the Bakkafjörður harbour
Photo. Golli. Lumpfish fishing in East Iceland.