Lumpfish Season Starts Next Week Amid Catch Quota Uncertainty


The lumpfish fishing season begins Tuesday, March 23, according to new regulations issued by Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson, in all areas except for Breiðafjörður, where it starts May 20. The IMFRI will issue their suggested catch limits on March 31.  The new regulations allow the Directorate of Fisheries to cut the season short for all other regions but Breiðafjörður if they come close to finishing this year’s allotted catch, and it also allows fishermen to collect lumpfish roe but leave the fish itself behind. These measures are aimed at eliminating uncertainty among lumpfish fishermen, who are facing a difficult season as anti-bycatch legislation, difficult market conditions and the possibility of catch quotas threaten the stability of independent fishermen and rural fishing communities.

Lumpfish licenses instead of catch quotas

Unlike most fishing in Icelandic waters, lumpfish fishing is controlled by licenses and fishing periods instead of catch quotas. A lumpfish license gives sailors the right to 25 consecutive days of lumpfish fishing in the period between March 23-30 June. In that period, they can fish as much lumpfish as they can, although authorities keep a watchful eye to see their catch doesn’t exceed that recommended by the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Institute (IMFRI). The sea around Iceland is split into seven fishing zones, one of which begins the season much later than the others. To protect bird- and wildlife in the area, fishermen in inner Breiðafjörður start their season May 20, much later than others. One of the small boat owners’ main reason for continuing the current system is it’s a system that works – usually. Last year, however, Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór cut the lumpfish season short as fishermen in North and East Iceland had such a good season they were nearing the limit of what experts at the IMFRI believe the lumpfish stock can handle. This was a blow to Breiðafjörður fishermen, as the season there starts later to protect bird- and wildlife in the area.

Opposition from small boat owners

Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór has presented a bill in Parliament that would make lumpfish fishing subject to catch quotas, but the bill has seen fierce opposition from The National Association of Small Boat Owners. While the majority of lumpfish license holders support the bill, as it would be a great financial boon for them, the bill would make it harder for independent fishermen to gain access to lumpfish fishing. As it is, lumpfish fishing is one of the few types of fishing you can get into without owning or renting catch quotas, which requires funds. Last year’s catch disparity was one of the main reasons Kristján Þór presented the catch quota bill, which would make it easier to manage lumpfish catch, but at the moment, most signs indicate that the bill won’t pass parliament this year, at least not in time for this year’s lumpfish season.

Photo. Golli. Lumpfish fishing in East Iceland.

Global pandemic affects lumpfish prices

Due to the global pandemic, global lumpfish prices are low. The most valuable part of the lumpfish is its roe, while the fish itself is secondary in terms of monetary value. The lumpfish is mostly exported to China, while lumpfish roe is exported to Europe. The roe is a luxury commodity, so during times of global pandemic when many restaurants are closed, demand in Europe is low. In China, the demand for the fish itself is non-existent. As the price for the fish is hitting rock bottom, this year’s regulation allows fishermen to collect lumpfish roe but leave the fish itself behind out on the ocean, a novelty for lumpfish regulations, which usually require fishermen to land all of their catch.

Under such difficult market conditions, it is normal for license holders to hold off on lumpfish fishing and focus on other, more lucrative types of fishing, but as 200 Mílur has reported, the prospect of catch quotas could make lumpfish fishermen afraid to skip this year’s fishing season. If the valuable catch quotas are distributed based on catch history like the bill currently proposed suggests, fishermen want to make sure they get their piece of the lumpfish pie. According to the Federation of Small Boat Owners Chairman Arthur Bogason, fears of inactive license holders rushing to fish for lumpfish are not keeping him up at night. His feeling, based on conversations with small boat owners across the country, is that there’s not a rush towards lumpfish fishing, as one season of fishing would hardly result in enough of a catch history to accrue much catch quota, calculated on the basis of catch history from 2013-2019.

An uncertain future for lumpfish fishing

The reason the Breiðafjörður fishermen start later than others is to minimise bird and seal bycatch. The amount of bycatch in lumpfish fishing is a problem, one that could possibly threaten the future of lumpfish fishing. According to Arthur, lumpfish fishermen are continuing their efforts this year to minimise bycatch. In addition to harming wildlife, bycatch is a nuisance for fishermen and can damage fishing gear. Last year, the pandemic affected the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute’s ability to conduct in-person investigations of bycatch, jeopardising future export to American markets on grounds of the US Marine Mammal Protection act. While lumpfish export to the US isn’t extensive by any means, lumpfish bycatch could affect US export of Cod, a much more lucrative business. The MMPA taking effect was postponed by one year, giving authorities a little more time to find a solution to the problem but minimising bycatch as much as the MMPA requires is still near-impossible, meaning that as lumpfish fishermen head out next March 23, the future is still uncertain.

Fishermen working at the Bakkafjörður harbour
Photo. Golli. Lumpfish fishing in East Iceland.

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.

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.

Iceland’s Lumpfish Season Cut Short By Fisheries Minister


Some fishermen have been left empty-handed by the government’s decision to cut the lumpfish season short, RÚV reports. The Fisheries Minister revoked all licenses for fishing of the species as of May 3. The reason was that fishermen had already nearly reached the quota of 4,646 tonnes recommended by the country’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI).

“This regulation is to ensure that fishing is in accordance with scientific advice and that is important for all parties concerned,” Fisheries Minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson is quoted as saying. Örn Pálsson, managing director of the National Union of Small Boat Owners (Landssamband smábátaeigenda), is unhappy about the decision, which he described as extremely unfortunate. Örn says the large lumpfish hauls this spring show MFRI’s quota underestimated the size of the stock this year.

Decision a blow to West Iceland

Most of the lumpfish already caught this year was landed in East Iceland, where the season begins earlier than in the west. In Breiðafjörður bay, West Iceland, the lumpfish season does not begin until late May, and authorities have acknowledged that by allowing fishermen in the region to apply for 15-day licences to fish the species this year if they did so in 2018 or 2019.

It’s small consolation for fishermen like Sigurður Friðrik Jónsson of Þingeyri in the Westfjords, who had prepared his boat for 44 days of fishing. Sigurður called the Fisheries Minister’s action an unfair blow, particularly to those who can’t start fishing until later in the season. “Those who can start early do so. Of course they’re hardy, they get theirs and then we’re left sitting here with our tail between our legs.”

The quota specifically applies to female lumpfish, or grásleppa, which are caught for their valuable roe. Males, which are significantly smaller, are known as rauðmagi.

Running a Tight Ship

Steinunn Káradóttir Glettingur

Steinunn Káradóttir is setting out to sea with her father Kári Borgar Ásgrímsson. Their boat Glettingur, named after a nearby peak, is the only “mountain” visible – fog obscures the rest. They’ve been preparing to sail since 5.30am – a later than usual start for the pair, who have been fishing together since Steinunn was […]

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