Stricter Policy for Fish Farms Following Escapes

Golli. Norwegian divers catch escaped farmed salmon in an Icelandic river, October 2023

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir presented the draft of a new legal framework for fish farming in Iceland yesterday. The draft proposes increased monitoring of fish farms and requiring licence holders to pay “a fair price” for the use of natural resources. Escaped salmon from open-net fish farms in the Westfjords have been found in rivers across Northwest Iceland and the Westfjords in recent weeks, threatening the survival of the country’s wild salmon.

“Fee collection from the sector must reflect that [fish farming] is a matter of utilising limited resources,” Svandís stated. “It is fundamental that those who profit from the use of the country’s natural resources pay a fair price for it. But it is equally important that we set ourselves ambitious, measurable goals in environmental matters and set a timetable on the way to those goals.” The objectives and strategy in the draft extend to the year 2040 and the action plan to the year 2028.

Companies can lose farming licences if fish escape

The draft also includes additional funding for research and monitoring of fish farms, to be carried out by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (Hafrannsóknastofnun). At a press conference yesterday, the Head Secretary of the Food and Agriculture Ministry Kolbeinn Árnason stated that the new regulations would be enforce through the introduction of both positive and negative incentives.

“With tax incentives on the one hand, positive incentives so that people invest in equipment so that the risk [of escaped fish] will be lower,” Kolbeinn stated. “Then we have negative incentives, which include that the company will bear responsibility for escape incidents. The consequences for a company of such an escape will be in the form of the government stripping that company of a permanent fish farming licence.”

Read More: Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

The draft regulations also propose limiting farming in each fjord to a single company in order to facilitate investigation in the case of escaped fish and to limit the spread of disease. There are currently multiple fjords where more than one company is operating fish farms, particularly in the Westfjords. Companies would have until 2028 to swap licences so that only one company is operating in each zone.

Open-net salmon farms dominate industry

Open-net fish farming in Icelandic waters has grown more than tenfold between 2014 and 2021. Yearly production rose from under 4,000 tonnes to nearly 45,000 tonnes over this period. More than 99% of that production was farmed salmon.

The export value of agricultural products in 2021 was more than ISK 36 billion [$254 million; 237 million]. Most of that figure, or 76%, was farmed salmon, according to RÚV. The aquaculture industry has played a role in supporting development in the Westfjords and Eastfjords, but the largest fish farming companies in Iceland are Norwegian-owned. Escaped salmon from fish farms threatens the survival of wild salmon in Iceland through genetic mixing as well as the spread of disease.