New Minister to Amend Fish Farming Bill

Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture and fisheries

Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, the Left-Green Movement MP who recently became minister of food, agriculture and fisheries, has decided to amend a controversial bill on fish farming, RÚV reports.

The bill has already been submitted to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, and would change the law on aquaculture operations and licenses. The most heavily criticised clause would grant indefinite licenses to fish farming companies. As it stands, the licenses run 16 years with an option to extend.

Public opinion and legal advice

Bjarkey said that she’d received advice from legal counsel that the bill’s aims would best be reached by granting indefinite licenses. “I’m hearing that the public opinion and my legal advice are not in harmony on this issue,” Bjarkey said. “The parliament and I need to take this into account.”

The bill has been criticised by singer Björk and other environmental activists and groups, as well as Kristrún Frostadóttir, the leader of the Social Democratic Alliance. Kristrún compared the bill to the controversial law from the 1990 that handed indefinite fishing quotas to established fisheries. “They’re acting like this is a technical, legal issue to gift these indefinite licenses,” Kristrún said.

Online petition against bill

An online petition has been started, urging MPs to reject the bill. “We the undersigned urge Alþingi to reject the government’s bill on fish farming that would grant indefinite licenses for use of our resource in Icelandic fjords without remuneration,” the petition’s mission statement reads. “The bill authorises polluting industrial production with fish farming in the most sensitive areas of Iceland’s coasts under little supervision and puts the interests of license holders first at the expense of the public interest and nature of the country.”

Like reading about Iceland? How about winning a free trip to Iceland? Find out more here!

Björk Encourages Icelanders to Fight Fishing Bill

Artist Björk Guðmundsdóttir has entered the fray in support of a petition calling upon Parliament to vote against a controversial fishing bill. She announced this support on X (formerly Twitter).

The bill in question

The bill, already submitted to Parliament by Minister of Fisheries Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir of the Left-Green Party, would change the law regarding operation licenses for fishing farms in Iceland. The specific change would be to make these licenses indefinite; as it is, they run for 16 years, with an option to extend them.

If passed, current license holders would have control over one of Iceland’s most valuable resources for possibly far longer than before. The bill has been met with opposition from numerous groups, including the Federation of Icelandic River Owners and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund.

The bill has also been a point of contention in the current presidential race, as it was crafted while Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who is running for president, was still chair of the Left-Greens. This has prompted another candidate, Steinunn Ólína Kristjánsdóttir, to question whether Katrín could be impartial about signing, or vetoing, this particular bill, should it become law. She also started the petition.

“Do you want to give the rich our fjords?”

Posting on X, Björk wrote, “Do you want to give the rich our fjords? If not, sign [the petition].”

Björk then quotes an article from RÚV that outlines how the stated purpose of the bill is to increase sustainability, but that the Icelandic Wildlife Fund argues that the bill, if made law, would work against that purpose.

She then quotes the mission statement of the petition, which reads in part: “The bill authorizes polluting industrial production with fish farming in the most sensitive areas of Iceland’s coasts under little supervision and puts the interests of license holders first at the expense of the public interest and nature of the country.”

Fish farming is a matter close to Björk’s heart; she has also recently joined a list of plaintiffs in another fish farming case.

Like reading about Iceland? How about winning a free trip to Iceland? Find out more here!

Björk Among Plaintiffs in Fish Farming Case

björk 1997

The Westfjords Police will continue to investigate the escape of 3,500 salmons last August from a fish farm in Patreksfjörður run by the company Arctic Fish. Police had previously ended their investigation, but a motion from dozens of interested parties forced the issue, BB.is reports.

Among the plaintiffs was internationally renowned singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Björk is a member of AEGIS, a pressure group against offshore aquaculture, operating on behalf of the Icelandic Wildlife Fund (IWF).

Disastrous environmental effects

Police had dropped their investigation into whether Arctic Fish had breached laws governing fish farming in December of last year. Fish escaping from fish farms can have disastrous environmental effects. The farmed fish can carry parasites deadly to wild fish or even breed with the wild fish, producing offsprings that can not survive in nature.

The motion from environmental groups and angling societies caused the Public Prosecutor to intervene and have the police reopen the case. Gunnar Örn Petersen, the manager of the Federation of Icelandic River Owners, said that the Westfjord police commissioner was either incompetent or biased in the case. The commissioner’s stance had been that Arctic Fish could not be held liable for the circumstances leading to the escape.

Wild salmon safety in the public interest

The Public Prosecutor, however, noted that the manager and, in some cases, board members of Arctic Fish could be responsible for the internal monitoring of conditions and protocols regarding fish farming. They went on to state that all plaintiffs were eligible to file a motion in this case, as it pertains to the public interest of safeguarding the wild salmon population.

Like reading about Iceland? How about winning a free trip to Iceland? Find out more here!

Deep North Episode 57: Balancing the Scales

escaped farmed fish iceland

On Saturday, October 7, a tractor trundled through the streets of downtown Reykjavík with hundreds of protestors in tow. The procession was headed to Austurvöllur Square in front of Iceland’s Parliament for a demonstration.

Several organisations – including Landvernd (the Icelandic Environment Association) and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund – had organised the event to protest salmon aquaculture in open-net sea pens, an industry that grew more than tenfold in Iceland between 2014 and 2021. During this period, annual production ballooned from nearly 4,000 tonnes of farmed salmon to approximately 45,000 tonnes.

The reason protestors were demonstrating was because the growth of the industry had coincided with what some would call predictable problems. Aside from the potentially negative environmental impacts that salmon farming in open-net pens poses – including pollution from fish waste, uneaten feed, and chemicals or medicines used to treat diseases – Iceland had recently witnessed firsthand two of the industry’s primary risks: the escape of genetically-distinct farmed salmon of Norwegian origin from open-net pens (threatening introgression with wild populations), and the proliferation of diseases and parasites, most notably sea lice.

Read the full story here.

Balancing the Scales

escaped farmed fish iceland

Protest On Saturday, October 7, a tractor trundled through the streets of downtown Reykjavík with hundreds of protestors in tow. The procession was headed to Austurvöllur Square in front of Iceland’s Parliament for a demonstration.Several organisations – including Landvernd (the Icelandic Environment Association) and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund – had organised the event to protest […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

Expanded MAST Capabilities for Aquaculture Monitoring

arnarlax fish farm iceland

MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, is set to receive its own vessels and increased manpower to better oversee fish farming, RÚV reports.

Read more: Minister Booed During Fish Farming Protest 

The decision comes in the wake of recent escapes from aquaculture pens in the Westfjords, in which farmed fish were found to have made their way into Icelandic waterways. The recent incidents have led to increased public awareness of fish farming practices in Iceland, including the pollution of Icelandic fjords through fish waste, antibiotics, and pesticides, and also the danger posed to native fish stocks by farmed salmon. Because of the density in which farmed salmon are raised, they can carry infectious diseases that may harm native fish, in addition to competing with them for food.

Concerns such as these were expressed this Saturday,  October 7, at a rally on Austurvöllur Square. Among the speakers at the protest was Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson. The minister faced vocal criticism for his perceived inaction, but stated to the assembled protestors: “People can criticise me as they wish. But if one looks at what I’ve said and done, perhaps there would be less of it. That’s beside the point, as I’m not the main focus here. That’s evident. Your message is clear, and I thank you for taking the initiative to organise this, for showing up and demonstrating solidarity with Icelandic nature. Actions will be taken based on this, and this meeting truly matters. I sincerely thank you for that.”

The recent decision to expand MAST’s regulatory capabilities took place against the background of widespread disapproval of aquacultural methods in Iceland. MAST stated that in addition to the increased capabilities represented by the new boats, the number of MAST employees assigned to monitoring fish farming will also be increased. Until now, there have only been the equivalent of 5.6 full-time workers to oversee fish farming in both the East- and Westfjords.

Read more: Björk Enlists Rosalía in Campaign Against Fish Farming

Karl Steinar Óskarson, department head at MAST, stated to RÚV that they will also see ISK 126 million [$914,000; €867,000] in increased funding.

MAST intends to use this funding to hire six new positions. Currently advertised are roles in digital monitoring and “special oversight” to prevent further escapes like the large-scale escapes that were recorded last year.

MAST additionally plans to acquire two boats, trailers, and monitoring equipment. Karl Steinar stated to RÚV: “We can use these to go out to the pens when we need to. We will not be dependent on the companies, which is crucial for us.”

Authorities have also made use of submarine drones to monitor aquaculture pens, but the new boats and manpower will significantly increase MAST’s capabilities. Karl Steinar continued: “For example, in the Westfjords alone, there are over 100 pens. We have underwater drones that we purchased this year and we can visit the cages we choose and inspect them from below. We can check if repairs have been made to nets, for example, without us being informed, and also continue to monitor the fish.”

Minister Booed During Fish Farming Protest Last Saturday

Laxeldi Austurvöllur sjókví Lax

A protest against open-sea aquaculture drew a significant crowd at Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík on Saturday. Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, who was booed, acknowledged the need for action and expressed appreciation for the public’s defence of Icelandic nature.

Insecticide poured over dead fish

On Saturday, Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík became the focal point of a protest against open-sea aquaculture in Iceland. Farmers and landowners from across the country converged at the square, with a procession originating from the University of Iceland’s parking area leading up to the main event at Austurvöllur.

The event featured several speakers, including fisherman Árni Pétur Hilmarsson and biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson. During his address, Sturlaugsson emphatically stated, “We all protest!” – a reference to a protest of Danish imposition in the 19th century led by Independence leader Jón Sigurðssons – a sentiment that garnered considerable applause from the attendees.

Musician Bubbi Morthens set the tone for the protest by performing two songs to open the event. Inga Lind Karlsdóttir took on the role of moderator, guiding the event and addressing the gathered crowd.

As reported by Vísir, the protest witnessed an unexpected turn of events towards its conclusion. Inga Lind directed the protestors to pour insecticide over Austurvöllur and on dead fish, using containers that the organisers had placed near the stage; the act was meant to symbolise the numerous instances where poison has been released into the fjords of the country.

Minister booed by protestors

As noted by RÚV, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate, faced criticism for the government’s inaction regarding salmon farming issues at the protest. He stated that the matter did not fall under the purview of his ministry, acknowledging, however, the challenge posed by the organisers for the authorities to take responsibility, protect nature, and prohibit open-sea aquaculture near the coast.

Following this, Guðlaugur Þór expressed appreciation for the significant turnout at the protest and thanked the public for defending Icelandic nature. There were subsequent calls for the authorities to take similar actions:

“People can criticise me as they wish. But if one looks at what I’ve said and done, perhaps there would be less of it. That’s beside the point, as I’m not the main focus here. That’s evident. Your message is clear, and I thank you for taking the initiative to organise this, for showing up and demonstrating solidarity with Icelandic nature. Actions will be taken based on this, and this meeting truly matters. I sincerely thank you for that,” Guðlaugur Þór remarked.

In an interview with Vísir after his speech, Guðlaugur Þór iterated that aquaculture was not within his purview but acknowledged its significance, referring to the alleged violations of Arctic Sea Farm.

Björk Enlists Rosalía in Campaign Against Fish Farming in Iceland

Singer Björk

Björk and Rosalía are releasing a song to protest against Icelandic aquaculture, coinciding with a related public demonstration on October 7. Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries proposed a stricter legal framework to mitigate the industry’s environmental impact on Wednesday.

Proceeds going towards the fight against aquaculture

Björk has partnered with Spanish singer Rosalía in the fight against aquaculture in Iceland; the pair has announced the release of a song in October, and Björk encourages all Icelanders to attend a protest against fish farming at Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík on Saturday, October 7. Icelandic musician Bubbi is also set to perform. The two artists plan to use the proceeds from the song to support locals in legal cases against aquaculture companies.

“I want to release a song that Rosalía and I wrote together. The proceeds will go towards the fight against aquaculture in Iceland. The song will be released in October,” Björk stated in an announcement on Instagram, where she also shared a snippet from the song.

As previously noted, a protest against aquaculture is scheduled for Saturday, October 7. Seven associations are organising the protest, stating that it’s “now or never for the wild salmon.” Mbl.is reported yesterday that Björk would appear at Saturday’s protest alongside Rosalía.

Survival of wild salmon under threat

In her Instagram post, Björk stated that Iceland had the largest untouched wilderness in Europe, observing that in the summer “sheep have roamed free in the mountains” and “fish have swum unrestricted in rivers, lakes, and fjords.”

Given the pristine state of Iceland’s nature, it was a “big shock” when Icelandic and Norwegian businessmen started setting up fish farms in the majority of Iceland’s fjords, according to Björk. She went on to explain that she and others were at a loss at how these farms had been operated for the better part of a decade without any regulatory framework or legislation.

“This has already had a devastating effect on wildlife,” Björk observed, stating that the farmed fish had suffered in “horrid health conditions,” noting that many of them had escaped into local streams, potentially spelling the extinction of wild salmon in Iceland.

“There is still a chance to save the last wild salmon of the north!” Björk stated. She also urged the aforementioned companies to cease their operations and expressed her desire to help implement new laws and regulations in the Icelandic legal environment to protect nature. The protests at Austurvöllur were about transforming the will of the people into law, she concluded by saying.

Draft of stricter policy presented

As reported by IR yesterday, the Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir presented the draft of a new legal framework for fish farming in Iceland on Wednesday. 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.

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.

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.

Further Aquaculture Permits Put on Hold

arnarlax fish farm iceland

RÚV reports that further aquaculture permits have been suspended by the government, citing the recent growth of the industry and recent concerns about local fish stocks.

Read more: Extensive Hybridization Between Farmed and Wild Fish Stocks

Fish farming has grown significantly in recent years. In 2014, some 8,300 tonnes of farmed fish were exported by Iceland. According to the latest data from 2022, that number has now risen to more than 51,000 tonnes.

Profits have likewise risen rapidly, the total export in 2014 accounting for ISK 1.4 billion [$10.3 million, €9.6 million]. By 2022, that number had risen to ISK 40.5 billion [$298 million, €279 million]. Top importers have been the US, Holland, Germany, Denmark, France, and the UK.

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

The government decision came in the wake of a recent report on the industry, which found a patchwork of regulation that left the industry largely unsupervised.

One major concern which has made recent headlines is the hybridization of farmed fish following their escape from pens. Conservationists are concerned that the farmed fish introduce parasites into native fish stocks, in addition to competing with them for food. At least 16 cases of escapes have been documented by MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. Most recently, some 3,500 fish went missing in Patreksfjörður.

The majority of fish farming is practised in the Westfjords, where it accounts for some 5.5% of local jobs. But the industry has also grown significantly in the Eastfjords as well, where it has become a much-debated issue.

Recently, residents of Seyðisfjörður expressed their opposition to proposed increases of the industry in the area, stating that it would narrow the available shipping lanes. In addition to a ferry, Seyðisfjörður is also visited by a number of cruise ships each year, which have become an important part of the local economy.