Icelandic Student Takes Second Place in European Statistics Competition

Ólöf María Steinarsdóttir, a student at Reykjavík’s Technical College, won second place in the 16-18 age group of the European Statistics Competition (ESC) for her statistical analysis of why Iceland has such high greenhouse gas emissions per capita. RÚV reports that 17,000 students from 19 countries took part in the competition.

The ESC is a competition organized by Eurostat and participating national statistical institutes, aimed at encouraging secondary students to become literate in statistics and official statistical sources. The competition is divided into two phases, national and European. Participants first participate at the national level and then those winners proceed to the European finals. This is the fifth year the competition has been held, but the first year Iceland has participated.

After winning the national competition in Iceland, Ólöf María and her fellow finalists were asked to produce two-minute videos on the environment. “Contestants had to present their findings on what official statistics tell about the environment in their country/region,” explains the press release on the Eurostat website. “The students produced really powerful videos, some even in the form of a rap song. Their message is clear: we need to build (statistical) knowledge about environmental issues and take action!” A jury of European experts reviewed the 66 submissions and selected the top five videos in the 14 – 16 age group (32 submissions) and the 16 – 18 age group (34 submissions). Ólöf María’s video placed second in the latter group, behind the team from Bulgaria. (A description of, and links to, all the top-placing videos can be found here.)

‘The Green Facade: The Story of Iceland Told by Statistics’

In her video, ‘The Green Facade: The Story of Iceland Told by Statistics,’ Ólöf María examines why Iceland produces 5.24x as much in emissions as its larger European neighbours. This despite the fact that on a household-level, emissions are low in Iceland, and have been consistently so for over 25 years. Industry, and most specifically aluminum production, produces 90% of Iceland’s emissions. See the full, two-minute video, in English, below.

Scientists Document Glacier Melt in Real Time: ‘We Have to Make a Conscious, Informed Decision About Which Future We Choose’

New footage and photography compiled by a team of scientists at the University of Iceland shows three decades of glacial melt in just over three minutes. CNN reports that the team superimposes archival aerial photos on top of contemporary drone footage to show the dramatic effect that warming climates have had on glaciers in Southeast Iceland. Some of these glaciers are retreating at a rate of 150 metres [492 ft] a year. Since 2000, it’s estimated that Iceland’s glaciers have decreased by some 800 km2 [309 mi2].

The team is led by Þorvarður (Thorri) Árnason, director at the Hornafjörður Research Centre. “About 14 years ago, I started to do repeat photography at one of the glaciers here, Hoffellsjökull,” Þorvarður told CNN. “I went once a month for eight years. It’s like visiting an old friend, there’s a sense of familiarity.”

Iceland has twenty outlet glaciers that extend from the Vatnajökull ice cap. All of them, Þorvarður says, have receded in the time he has been observing them. Some experts say that if global warming conditions continue apace, Iceland’s glaciers are at risk of disappearing completely.

See Also: Snæfellsjökull Could Be Gone in Thirty Years

“We need to tell people what the reality is,” says Þorvarður. “On the other hand, we don’t want to frighten people, to immobilize them through anxiety.”

Having documented the present situation, Þorvarður and his team are now turning their attention toward the future. “We want to pre-visualize what our fastest retreating glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, will look like 100 years from now. Based on worse-case, business as usual, and best case. There is always a range of potential futures that is open to us. There is still a chance for the wounds to heal and for the glaciers to recover, at least to some extent. We have to make a conscious, informed decision about which future we choose.”

See the full documentary short, in English, on CNN, here.

Environment Agency: Fox Hunting No Longer Serves Its Purpose

The Environment Agency of Iceland says that fox hunting in Iceland no longer serves its intended purpose—to protect sheep and birdlife—and is costing the state and local municipalities more and more every year. Fréttablaðið reports that 56,000 foxes have been hunted in Iceland in the past decade, with a cost of almost a billion krónur [$7.65 million; €6.65 million] to the state.

A ‘mythological battle’

The arctic fox lives in polar regions around the world and is currently listed as a species of least concern by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1979, there were only 1,200 of the animals in Iceland, but the population grew to just under 9,000 by 2007. Between the years of 2008 and 2010, there was a 30% drop in population, but it has been relatively stable in recent years, even as hunting has increased. As of this summer, it was estimated that there were roughly 9,000 – 10,000 Arctic foxes in Iceland. The species is protected within the confines of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords, but outside of these bounds, hunting the animal is allowed, and even encouraged monetarily.

“Icelanders have given the arctic fox many names which could be related to the ‘mythological battle’ between the humans and the foxes since the early decades of the settlement 1100 years ago,” explains the Arctic Fox Centre. “At first, foxes were trapped for the valuable fur but soon the competition for the few resources became too complicated and the foxes were killed to protect lambs and other stock animals. Nowadays the foxes are still hunted throughout the country, where it is believed that protection of livestock or eider farms is needed. Winter hunting is also conducted in all regions of the country and “den-hunting” (killing all the animals at a fox den), one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland, is still performed. The fur, however, is not used anymore since it became [worthless] with the emergence of fur farms some decades ago.”

Hunters paid for every fox killed

The argument that foxes must be hunted in order to protect livestock and birdlife has also been strengthened by public perception of the fox as a vicious predator. “The fox is said to be cunning and cruel,” noted the 1961 short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (‘The fox makes its den in the scree,’ watch here, in Icelandic). “So it is getting its just desserts. It is killed on sight wherever it is encountered.”

Screenshot from short documentary Refurinn gerir greni í urð (Ósvaldur Knudsen; 1961)

This way of thinking is quickly losing traction among experts and politicians alike, however. “Livestock doesn’t appear to be suffering,” says Steinar Rafn Beck Baldursson, a specialist in hunting management at the Environment Agency. He notes that the agency has put out calls for reports of foxes killing sheep and birds but has only received the occasional notification of foxes getting into eider nests. When asked why foxes don’t pose the same threat they once did to sheep, Steinar Rafn has a very simple supposition: sheep no longer give birth to their young in pastures. “In the past, foxes hunted newborn lambs or went after sheep when they were in labour.”

Last year, 7,227 foxes were hunted, marking a 40-year high. This creates a significant financial burden on the state, as local municipalities are obliged to pay hunters for every fox they kill between the fall and the spring. The annual cost of this has increased dramatically over the years. In 2011, ISK 67 million [$512,742; € 445,349] was paid out to fox hunters. This total ballooned to ISK 134 million [$1.03 million; €890,699] in 2020. The state has been paying a fifth of the cost since 2014, as a way of offsetting the financial burden on large, but sparsely populated municipalities.

See Also: This Season, Ptarmigan Shooting Confined to Afternoons

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson recently submitted a bill to parliament that would have amended current hunting legislation and established a management and protection plan for the arctic fox in Iceland. The bill did not pass.

Steinar Rafn says that the Environment Agency had hoped the bill would pass but is currently considering similar proposals for changing the legislation on ptarmigan hunting—the fox will come later, he says. “What would make the most sense would be to review this whole system,” he says. “Maybe only winter hunting and no den hunting.”

There’s a Catch – Can Iceland Save Its Seals Without Hurting Its Fishermen?


Fishing has always been a pillar of Iceland’s economy. In recent decades, consolidation and tech improvements have transformed the industry so that today most commercial fishing, especially for cod, is done with large trawlers. One fish species along Iceland’s coast, however, is still mostly caught by small-town fishermen on little boats: the lumpfish. Lumpfish are an important source of income for independent fishermen in Iceland’s countryside. But this lifeline for Iceland’s smaller communities could be at risk due to the age-old method of catching lumpfish: nets.

While nets are great for catching fish, the problem with them is you can’t decide what or who gets stuck in them. Because they use nets, lumpfish fishermen often also trap more bycatch than other types of fishing operations in Iceland. The bycatch includes different kinds of fish, but also seabirds, seals, and even small whales. In an age where environmental matters are more pressing than ever, the wastefulness of bycatch stings. When the bycatch includes species under threat, as is the case for harbour seals, the problem becomes grave.

International fishing regulators and institutions are pressing Iceland to work on its bycatch problem. Though environmental concerns are pressing, it’s clear that banning lumpfish fishing would devastate Iceland’s independent fishermen and their communities, many of which are already struggling to maintain their way of life.

Fishermen working at the Bakkafjörður harbour

Lumpfish Support Small-Town Fishermen

The lumpfish is caught for its roe. Until recently, the fish itself was discarded after the roe were harvested. Today, however, it is shipped to China. The roe is sold on the European market, mainly to the Nordic countries, France, and Germany, where it is marketed as a more affordable alternative to sturgeon caviar.

Lumpfish season is in spring. Since lumpfish stay close to the coast, they are inaccessible to large ships, meaning that most of them are caught by independent fishermen in small boats using nets just like their forefathers did before them. While Reykjavík’s harbours are large fishing hubs, the majority of lumpfish is landed in small towns and villages far from the capital.

Bycatch Includes Threatened Species

As with all net fishing, Iceland’s lumpfish gillnets carry some risk of bycatch. In fact, Iceland lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable lumpfish fishing certification two years ago due to the number of seals and seabirds caught in nets: specifically harbour seals, grey seals, black guillemot, and great cormorants. While other species constituted a higher percentage of the bycatch, the harbour seal and black guillemot bycatch is more concerning as their stocks are smaller and both are on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red Lists.

Iceland has since taken extensive actions to improve the sustainability of lumpfish fishing. Iceland Sustainable Fisheries Project Manager Kristinn Hjálmarsson is cautiously optimistic that nothing stands in the way of regaining the MSC certification. According to Kristinn, the most important measures taken were the closure of certain fishing grounds to lumpfish nets, new laws and regulations, and easier access to bycatch registration (fishermen can now report bycatch through an app).

A ban on seal hunting introduced last year was a step towards better regulation of bycatch, in addition to a similar ban issued for black guillemot a year earlier. “Finally, it was a matter of changing people’s outlook, making it everyone’s shared goal to make sure this type of fishing is sustainable,” Kristinn says. The government has received a confirmation that its actions were considered sufficient. If the results are not contested in the next few days, Iceland will receive a five-year sustainable lumpfish fishing certificate.

While this is good news, it doesn’t let lumpfish fishermen off the hook. Iceland’s MSC certification is conditional: it requires the fishing not to hinder the recovery of harbour seal or black guillemot stocks during its five-year duration, and it is issued on the condition that alternative measures are reviewed to minimise unwanted catch.


A looming ban on seafood export to the US

While the MSC certification is within reach, (pending a a period of 15  working days during which eligible parties may file a
‘Notice of Objection’ to the Final Draft Report and Determination) , the lumpfish industry faces another, more imminent threat. Bycatch from Icelanders’ lumpfish fishing is currently too high to comply with the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act. Steps have been taken to decrease bycatch of seals and small whales, but if Iceland is not found to have had sufficient success by March of next year, the export of Icelandic seafood to the US could be curtailed for at least four years.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act is a piece of legislation from 1972 banning fishing that endangers marine mammals in the US. A 2016 amendment to the legislation requires other nations to comply with similar regulations to be able to export their seafood to the US. To comply, Iceland will need to turn in data showing they comply with the rules by March 1, 2021, or else the US market will be closed to certain seafood products on January 1, 2022, for at least four years.


Steps taken to improve sustainability insufficient

Though Iceland looks poised to receive a conditional MSC certification, the US stamp of approval is further out of reach. The Marine Mammal Act’s limitations on harbour seal bycatch are much stricter. According to Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) fisheries scientist Guðjón Már Sigurðarson, to avoid a ban on lumpfish imports to the US, Iceland’s annual bycatch of seals may not surpass 40 animals. For the past few years, Icelandic fishermen have reported a yearly bycatch of about 700 seals, thereof around 450 harbour seals. The MFRI estimates the actual number of harbour seals caught to be between 900-1,500 per year. That’s a sizable amount, considering that the harbour seal stock along Iceland’s coast only numbered an estimated 7,600 animals in 2016, down from 30,000 in 1980. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History placed the harbour seal on is Red List in 2018. Its main threats were cited as hunting and getting caught in nets.

Even with the actions taken to secure the MSC certification, a dramatic enough reduction to make lumpfish fishing comply to the US regulations is unlikely. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters. While the MFRI and the Directorate of Fisheries had planned extensive bycatch inspections to gather reliable data, gathering bans and infection prevention restrictions made most of the in-person inspections impossible. The result is that authorities don’t have reliable data on whether their actions have had the intended effect. The next lumpfish season won’t start until next spring – past the deadline to turn in the required data to US authorities.

Bycatch of small whales has also been around the limit, but it’s less likely to be a sticking point in negotiations with US authorities, as the numbers are lower. Furthermore, experiments with sonic whale repellents have shown success. While high-frequency sounds and recorded whale warning calls failed to repel whales at first, a revised version of the warning call repellent has proved effective. No small whales were caught in the nets emitting the warning call, while nets without repellents caught the usual amount. Unfortunately, no such repellent has been found to work on seals. “They’re much too smart,” Guðjón says. “It might work for two or three days, but by then, the seal has learned that there’s no danger. Some of the repellents even ended up attracting seals because they’d discover that the nets emitting the sounds contained plenty of fish.”lumpfish nets


The effects are unclear

Chairman of the National Association of Small Boat Owners Þorlákur Halldórsson says the Ministry of Fisheries has put together a committee to tackle Iceland’s response to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. Still, they’re at a loss on what that response might be. As it stands, complying with the regulations is incompatible with continuing net fishing.

Yet the effects of banning lumpfish net fishing would negatively impact small towns and fishing companies. Lumpfish is the only fish in Iceland that is primarily caught in nets, usually on small boats operated by independent fishermen. Lumpfish fishermen also mostly live outside the capital area, in small towns and villages. “If lumpfish fishing gets hit, it’s the countryside that receives the blow,” said Þorlákur.

He raised the subject of the US import ban at the annual meeting to bring awareness to the issue and the fact that the clock is ticking. “Interested parties such as seafood exporters might not even realise that this threat is imminent or how little time there is left to stop it.” According to Þorlákur, the environmental measures taken last autumn have proved a success. While COVID-19 impacted inspections, the data they did manage to compile suggests that the numbers were something to celebrate. “No one is as qualified as fishermen to minimise bycatch, as they know every grain of sand and every wave of their fishing grounds.”  Still, he agrees with marine scientists that reducing the bycatch of seals to 40 animals per year is just not possible.

young seal

So what then?

How would a US import ban affect Iceland? Ásta Sigrún Magnúsdóttir told Fiskifréttir that “the import ban would only affect products from fishing where the bycatch was over a certain limit. The exact interpretation is yet to be known.” She added that there was no discussion among Icelandic authorities of banning lumpfish fishing. But while the MMPA only affects seafood where the fishing methods cause too much bycatch, it’s not just the lumpfish export that’s at stake. In an email, Ásta stated: “According to the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute’s projections, only lumpfish fishing produces seal bycatch exceeding US limits. Some bycatch is produced by bottom trawlers and cod nets but combined; they are under the bycatch limits. If we apply for a US export permit for lumpfish, all products from fishing that combined exceed the limits will face the same limitations, that is all fishing where seals get caught in fishing gear.” In short, the much more profitable cod export market is also at stake.

The majority of lumpfish products are exported to Europe and China and the amount of lumpfish products shipped to the US annually (2% of Iceland’s total export) is minuscule in comparison to Iceland’s US cod export. While banning lumpfish net fishing is not on the table yet, it’s clear that the impact of the traditional way of fishing is undesirable, both in terms of the environment and international seafood markets. The industry is taking steps to minimise seal bycatch but further steps are necessary to improve living conditions for both independent fishermen in rural areas and harbour seals.