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.”

Whaling Not in Line with Animal Welfare, Report Finds

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

The much-awaited report on the 2022 fin whale season has been released by The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).

Following a pause in whaling, Iceland resumed the practice last year. Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has stated that after the 2023 whaling season, whaling permits may not be renewed. She introduced tighter surveillance methods for whaling ships last season, in addition to the inclusion of animal welfare officers among the crew to minimize the suffering of the animals. Whether or not whaling is to continue in Iceland is dependent on the results of the report commissioned on the 2022 whaling season, which, after a delay, is now publically available.

Read more: Animal Welfare Inspectors to Join Whaling Ships

According to law, those who engage in hunting are required to ensure that they cause the least possible harm and that the killing takes the shortest possible time for the animals. In a statement by MAST, they recognize that best practices were followed and provisions on hunting under the Animal Welfare Act were not broken. However, MAST also found an “unacceptable” proportion of the whales suffered prolonged deaths.

According to the report, which is based on data from 58 whale killings, 35 whales (59%) were killed instantaneously, according to the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) definition of instant death.

In addition, it is believed that five whales that showed convulsions lost consciousness either instantly or very quickly, and therefore it is estimated that 67% of the whales experienced instantaneous death.

Some 14 whales (24%) were shot more than once, while two whales had to be shot four times. Median Time to Death (TTD) of those whales which did not die instantly was found to be 11.5 minutes.

Ask Iceland Review: Does Iceland Still Whale?

However, because the findings differed significantly from a comparable 2014 report, Hvalur hf, the only whaling company still operating in Iceland, requested a second opinion.

Written by Wild Animal Veterinarian Þóra J. Jónsdóttir, the second opinion found the Instantaneous Death Rate (IDR) to be “somewhat higher” than the conclusions of MAST. Given differences in methodology and data collection, Þóra stated that “it is difficult to compare the results from 2014 with the current data […] The way the sampling and monitoring have been carried out, the quality control of recorded data, are far from being equal for the two sampling seasons […] They are like apples and pears.”

Additionally, Þóra stated that due to several problems with the video monitoring, recorded Time to Death (TTD) could not be fully controlled. “The platform used for filming is usually the wheelhouse instead of the wheelhouse roof or another place where the overview and sight is much better to observe the killing. So, for several whales the recorded TTD will be imprecise, most probably overestimated.”

The study monitored Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, the only two whaling ships still active in Iceland.

MAST will ask an animal welfare advisory board to review the data and assess whether whaling can be practised in line with animal welfare laws. If this is deemed possible, the government will need to establish regulations for the implementation of the hunts and minimum requirements for them.

The full text of the report can be found here.

150 Cattle Taken by Authorities in Abuse Case

icelandic cows

150 cattle have been removed from a farm in Borgarfjörður by the authorities on November 14 and 15. After repeated demands by authorities that their owner improve their conditions, authorities have finally been forced to confiscate the cattle after it became clear the farmer in question would not cooperate.

Both police officers and representatives from MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, were at the scene, reports RÚV.

Read more: Further Animal Abuse in Borgarfjörður

The owner in question is said to have a long history of mistreating his animals. Sheep and horses have been previously taken from the farmer to be slaughtered, as they were too maltreated to be rescued.

Some cattle confiscated in the latest episode will likewise be slaughtered, but many of the cows will be allowed to live and given new homes.

Ellen Ruth Ingimundsdóttir, district veterinarian for Southwest Iceland, stated that such cases are very difficult for all involved: “It’s a long and difficult story. We decided that it was no longer possible to give deadlines that weren’t met […] We don’t take animals from people just because we want to. We need to follow the law and we need to do this in consultation with locals so that it doesn’t hurt the animals. That’s why it has also taken a long time.”

Ellen additionally thanked those farmers who will be receiving the remaining cows, which are headed to barns with better pasture and conditions.


Low-Strength Melatonin Will No Longer Require Prescription

melatonin iceland

Following a recent statement by the Icelandic Medicines Agency, Lyfjastofnun, melatonin under a concentration of 1 mg/ day will no longer require a prescription.

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body which is released to regulate our sleeping cycles. It is often taken as a dietary supplement and as a medication to treat sleep disorders.

Up until now, melatonin has been classified as a medicine under Icelandic law, regardless of strength. In many other countries, however, melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement and is available without prescription. According to the Icelandic Medicines Agency, these differences in regulation between countries have caused confusion among both Icelanders and tourists, who have purchased melatonin abroad legally, but were not allowed to bring it into the country. In recent years, some of the Nordic countries have decided to allow over-the-counter sale of melatonin in low doses. In other countries, such as the United States, melatonin is sold in higher doses with no prescription needed.

Earlier this year, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, MAST, requested a reconsideration of melatonin’s classification status. Low-dose melatonin will now be available without prescription, as long as the marketing and packaging makes no claim to treat disease or act as a preventative measure.


Bacterial Infection Brucella Canis Suspected in Dogs in Iceland

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) has reason to suspect that a bacterial disease called Brucella canis has been found in dogs in Iceland. RÚV reports that Bruncella canis can—in very rare instances—be transmitted from dogs to humans, with young children, pregnant, and immunocompromised people at the greatest risk of serious infection. This is the first time that Brucella canis has been detected in Iceland.

MAST veterinarian Vigdís Tryggvadóttir was quick to clarify that as yet, it is not certain that Bruncella canis actually is in Iceland, although there is a very high likeliness of this. “We have a strong suspicion, but it’s still only a suspicion,” she said. “We’ve sent samples abroad for confirmation, and hopefully, it won’t be [Brucella canis]. But [results] could take up to two weeks.”

In the meantime, MAST has enacted some protocols to curb the spread of infection. Relevant parties have been told to quarantine animals suspected of being infected with Brucella canis and a mating ban has been instated where appropriate. The agency is also collecting samples and information to trace possible spread and is urging dog breeders to observe the strictest level of infection prevention while assisting with whelping. Breeders are also encouraged to contact their veterinarian if a dog miscarries late in gestation or gives birth to stillborn puppies or puppies that die shortly after birth.

Dog breeders and vets at highest risk of exposure, minimal risk for others

Brucella canis is a zoonotic bacterial disease, which means it can be passed from animals to people. In a recent announcement, MAST said its most prominent symptoms in female dogs are miscarriages late in gestation, as well as puppies that are stillborn or die soon after birth; for male dogs, swollen testicles. The most common mode of transmission between dogs is mating.

It is rare for people to become infected with Brucella canis, but the biggest risk of infection is via fluids and tissue when helping an infected dog give birth. This puts dog breeders and veterinarians at the highest risk of infection, says Vigdís, while nearly everyone else has almost no risk of exposure.

In the very unlikely case of infection, symptoms of Brucella canis within people include fever, chills, malaise, loss of appetite, bone and/or muscle pain, and swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may appear within several days or as much as a month after infection. The disease is not generally transmittable between people.

First time suspected in Iceland

This is the first time that Brucella canis has been suspected of being in Iceland, but it is a very common disease in nearby nations. “Brucella canis is endemic in many countries in Europe and also Asia and further afield,” said Vigdís. “It’s never been diagnosed here and it’s rare in some other European countries. We’ve never had it here and want, of course, to keep it outside our borders.”

Vigdís concluded by saying that even if a case of Brucella canis is confirmed in Iceland, that doesn’t mean an epidemic is breaking out.

Origin of Horse Head Used for Pagan Curse Still Unknown

Capital-area police are still trying to determine the origin of the severed horse head that was mounted on a stake on the land of a small capital-area community last week, RÚV reports. The grotesque totem, which derives from ancient pagan tradition, is called a nithing pole and is intended to curse the receiver.

See Also: ‘I take it as a threat’: Nithing Pole Erected at Local Commune 

DCI Stella Mjöll Aðalsteinsdóttir says that police have not received any reports of missing horses. Icelandic horses are microchipped, but this is no use to authorities in this instance, either: the head used on the nithing pole was severed above the neck, where its chip would have been located. Police are still awaiting the final report from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), but are conducting their own parallel investigation, which Stella Mjöll said she was unable to comment further on at time of writing.

Animal did not suffer

Police believe it unlikely that the head was taken from a slaughterhouse, as there are strict rules about the disposal of byproducts at such facilities. According to the information that MAST has been able to provide about the animal thus far, the horse was two years old and was killed with a single shot to the head. Sigríður Björnsdóttir, a veterinarian of equine diseases at MAST, noted that the head has not started to rot, which either means that the animal was shot shortly before the nithing pole was erected, or that the head was stored in a refrigerator beforehand.

Under Icelandic law, horse owners are permitted to slaughter their animals without a veterinarian present, as long as it is done correctly. Thankfully, this seems to have been the case with the horse in question. Hallgerður Hauksdóttir, chair of the Animal Welfare Association of Iceland, says the organization will not be investigating the incident themselves, as it does not appear that the animal suffered.

Nithing poles in recent years

As mentioned, nithing poles are used in pagan tradition to curse the receiver. It is only considered a true nithing pole if a horse head is used.

One of the most famous uses of a nithing pole occurs in ch. 60 of Egill’s saga, which was written around 1240 AD, but nithing poles—or symbolic variations thereof—have been erected in Iceland several times in much more recent memory.

The last instance of a real nithing pole being erected was in the Reykjavík suburb of Breiðholt in 2012. In that case, it remains unknown who the pole was intended to curse, or where the horse head was sourced.

In 2006, a farmer in Otradalur in the Westfjords attempted to curse a neighbor using a nithing pole topped with a calf’s head. The man was charged with making a threat on the neighbor’s life.

In 2018, an opponent of salmon farming erected a nithing pole topped with a cod’s head in Bíldudalur in West Iceland.

Hundreds of Dead Guillemots Found on East Iceland Beaches

Nearly three hundred guillemots were found dead along the coasts of Iceland’s East Fjords last week, RÚV reports. Based on their appearance, it’s assumed that the birds died of starvation.

The East Iceland Nature Research Centre searched from Berjufjörður to Reyðarfjörður and found 273 guillemot carcasses. However, this is most likely only a fraction of the total number of birds that have actually died of late, said ornithologist Hálfdán Helgi Helgason, as in cases like this, only a small number of carcasses tend to wash ashore.

Hálfdán Helgi noted that seabirds like guillemots often have trouble finding food in bad weather and Iceland’s been subjected to a spate of storms of late. It is also possible that some birds were injured by hunters, as a great deal of seabird hunting has taken place in the East Fjords since the fall. It’s unlikely that bird flu is behind the deaths, but this possibility has not been entirely ruled out.

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority has been sent samples for further investigation and Hálfdán said he will continue to monitor the situation locally. He encourages anyone who lives in the area and finds a dead or dying bird on a seashore to report it to the centre.

Food and Veterinary Authority Refers Mare Abuse Incident to Police

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) has completed its investigation of the mistreatment of Icelandic mares during blood collection procedures. Per a press release on its website, the agency has determined that the abuse, which was caught by hidden camera and featured in a YouTube documentary called “Iceland – Land of 5,000 Blood Mares,” constitutes a breach of animal welfare laws. The incident and all related evidence have been turned over to the police.

See Also: MAST Reviewing Footage of Mistreated Mares in YouTube Doc

The documentary was posted in November 2021 by Tierschutzbund Zürich (TSB, Switzerland) and the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF, Germany) and has since received almost 70,500 views. It reports on the activities within so-called “blood farms” in Iceland, where blood is drawn from mares in early pregnancy to extract ECG (previously known as pregnant mare’s serum gonadotropin or PMSG): a hormone commonly used in concert with progestogens to induce ovulation in livestock prior to artificial insemination.

The documentary features footage from hidden cameras showing workers beating and shouting at horses. The filmmakers claim to have discovered “widespread animal-welfare violations” in Iceland, which run counter to claims made by pharmaceutical companies on the nature of blood-collection procedures in the country.

See Also: Blood Harvesting in Mares Four Times More Frequent Than a Decade Ago

In the course of its investigation, MAST contacted both TSB and AWF and requested further information on where and when the video footage had been taken, as well as whatever uncut footage was available. MAST says that in December, it received an open letter from the organizations in which they refused to share uncut footage or confirm filming locations, although they did specify the dates on which the footage had been shot.

Experts at MAST reviewed the documentary footage in detail and were able to determine both the location of the incidents as well as the people involved. The agency sought explanations from the individuals in question and their responses to the video footage. However, although MAST was able to confirm that abuses had taken place, the agency says that without all of the footage, including the uncut material that TSB and AWF refuse to provide, it is limited in its ability to assess the seriousness of the violations or to investigate the case in full.

Vets to Conduct Virtual Inspections as Part of Home Slaughter Pilot Program

Veterinarians will conduct their health inspections of meat over the internet as part of the new pilot project which allows farmers to slaughter at home, RÚV reports. The project is hoped to support innovation in the sheep farming industry and help farmers hold on to more of the profits from their lamb. Thirty-five farms around the country are taking part in the project. Each farm is allowed to slaughter five lambs at home.

Farmers have long called for changes to made to existing laws on home slaughter. Currently, farmers who sell meat must take their sheep to a slaughterhouse and then pay fees if they want to sell their products to the public.

See Also: Iceland to Permit Limited Home Slaughter This Fall

In addition, current regulations require a veterinarian to inspect any meat that intended for sale to the general public. Project manager Hólmfríður Sveinsdóttir says that one of the first things that needs to be done, therefore, is to determine if there’s a way for this inspection to take place remotely, as bringing a vet on-site can be costly for farmers. Online meat inspection has been carried out with varying degrees of success abroad, and there are many factors that determine how well this process works, such as the quality of the internet connection and the cameras being used.

As part of the pilot program, 19 of the participating farms will have a vet visit them to conduct on-site inspections. Sixteen will have their health inspections conducted online. Hólmfríður says that the inspection process will be the same in both cases—one will simply take place virtually. Farmers undergoing virtual inspections will take samples themselves, measuring the microbial and pH levels in the meat.

These individuals will also be responsible for ensuring that byproducts are handled correctly. Burying slaughter byproducts directly in the ground is forbidden. As the home slaughter only involves lamb, Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority has stated that farmers can take their byproducts to a carcass dumpster that each municipality is required to have.

Authorities will decide how to proceed with home slaughter based on the results of this pilot effort.

Marked Over 160 “Anthrax Graves” Around Iceland

An icelandic horse at sunset

Veterinarian Sigurður Sigurðarson and his wife Ólöf Erla Halldórsdóttir have been travelling around Iceland since 2004 on a mission to mark the graves of animals who died of anthrax, Bændablaðið reports. The bacteria that causes anthrax, which can be fatal to both animals and humans, can survive for hundreds of years underground. The couple wants to ensure locals and passers-by are aware of the risks of tampering with the soil covering these graves, which can bring the dangerous bacteria back to the surface.

“A few times I thought I had finished the project, but then I got information about farms and places that had been forgotten,” Sigurður stated. He has marked over 160 graves in 130 locations. The markings are white, cylindrical posts marked with the letter “A,” for anthrax. “A marking at these locations is a reminder to show caution and be alert if it’s necessary to disturb the soil at that location.”

Anthrax Bacterium Can Survive Dormant Indefinitely

Though the bacterium that causes anthrax poses little threat to animals and humans while underground, it can remain active for hundreds of years. “The bacterium that causes anthrax can live dormant in the soil almost indefinitely, but seems to pose little risk on the surface near graves after a few weeks, likely due to the effects of sunlight and erosion,” Sigurður explains. “That is why it’s important to know where danger lies and mark it, to caution against digging, which could bring the infectious agent up to the surface.”

The most recent case of anthrax in Iceland was in 2004, when sea erosion exposed a ridge where a large farm animal had been buried in 1874, 130 years earlier. Soil from the ridge was carried onto the pastureland of four horses, and three died suddenly. The fourth became ill and had to be put down.

Sigurður and Ólöf are now travelling around the country to check on the markings they have placed in previous years, and hopefully complete the project for good. They encourage locals with any information about past anthrax cases and associated graves to get in touch. They also hope landowners will lend a helping hand when it comes to any maintenance that may be necessary to keep the markings in good shape. Sigurður is compiling a full report on the project that will be submitted to the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).

Sigurður and Ólöf have carried out the project on a volunteer basis, though they have had help from sponsors around the country. Sigurður expressed his thanks to all of the project’s supporters, including former Minister of Agriculture Guðni Ágústsson.