Conflict Over Changes to Lumpfish Quotas


Minister of Fisheries Kristján Þór Júlíusson has presented a bill to Parliament suggesting that lumpfish fishing be subject to catch quotas. While a majority of lumpfish licence holders, 244 out of 450, presented the minister with a declaration of support, their organised interest group, the National Association of Small Boat Owners, contests the bill, with the majority of its regional associations objecting to the proposed fishing management changes.

Read more on Iceland’s lumpfish fishermen

Lumpfish fishing

Lumpfish are caught using small boats and nets for a short period every spring and are mainly caught for their roe. The majority of lumpfish fishers are independent fishermen living outside the capital area, so their economic prospects are important for small towns. About 450 boats are licenced to catch lumpfish, but only about half of those are in active use at any given time. Currently, fishing management for lumpfish is based on effort quotas meaning that fishing is limited to a certain period of time, during which the sailors can catch as much lumpfish as they can carry. The time restraints are intended to make sure that the catch stays within the recommended lumpfish catch limits.

Proposed changes would benefit active lumpfish fishers

The new bill proposes that the lumpfish catch be limited by the amount of catch instead, with each boat getting an allotted quota. Proponents of the bill argue that this would allow fishers to better organise their fishing by eliminating competition between fishermen. Instead of rushing out in every weather to get their share of the catch, they would know in advance how much they can catch, allowing them to plan to fish during suitable times for getting the product to market. In past years, lumpfish catch has fluctuated between under and overfishing and catch quotas would regulate that more efficiently. The amount of lumpfish licences means that if prices on lumpfish roe were to rise dramatically, the inactive licence holders might join the season, leading to more competition for the limited catch.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The opposing argument is that the quota would be allotted to boats in active fishing, not those who have a lumpfish licence not currently in use. Catch quotas are  more valuable than a lumpfish licence so active lumpfish fishers stand to gain from the bill, while inactive licence holders will lose their licence and likely have to shell out high prices for quotas if they want to resume lumpfish fishing in the future. The argument against changing the system is that the current system mostly works fine, and despite fluctuations in the catch, on average it is at par with the catch limits. Increased regulation would therefore not improve the situation but be cumbersome for inactive fishers. The exception is this year, when the Minister cut the lumpfish season short, upsetting the balance between lumpfish fishers in different regions.

Internal differences in interest group

Comprised of fifteen regional associations, the National Association of Small Boat Owners advocates for lumpfish fishermen but it also represents other small boat owners who don’t fish for lumpfish as well as inactive lumpfish licence holders. Nine out of its 15 regional associations have objected to the proposed catch quotas in preparation for the association’s annual meeting, scheduled for today. Four support the bill and two have not declared an official stance. It should be noted that in past years, even though an association objects to the quota, its representatives might have voted in favour of catch quotas, against their association’s stance, if it benefits them personally and votes have fallen with a narrow margin. The National Associations annual General Meeting is today and the discord between lumpfish fishers and association’s stance will likely be a hot button issue.

Why is this important?

The future of lumpfish fishing is uncertain at the moment. The nets used for fishing lumpfish lead to unwanted bycatch, including seals and whales, making the fishing undesirable in terms of environmental protection. The amount of bycatch doesn’t comply with the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act, and this might threatens lucrative cod export to the US market. While lumpfish fishing recently regained its MSC certification for sustainable fishing after taking steps to minimise bycatch, the success of the actions taken is yet to be sufficiently investigated, due to pandemic-related interruptions. Banning lumpfish fishing would be a hard blow that would disproportionately affect independent fishermen in small towns but if the lumpfish fishing is subject to catch quotas, they consider it more likely that they would be compensated for their damages if the government finds it necessary to eliminate the fishing to protect cod export to the US.