Icelandic State Must Pay Compensation for Misallocating Quota

The Icelandic state must compensate seafood companies Vinnslustöðin and Huginn due to the misallocation of mackerel quota from 2011 to 2018, RÚV reports. The state has been ordered to pay ISK 1 billion [$7.1 million, €6.6 million] plus legal costs of ISK 25 million [$178,000, €166,000]. Vinnslustöðin CEO Sigurgeir Brynjar Kristgeirsson says the state could have avoided the expense by negotiating directly with the company but showed no interest in doing so.

“We were pioneers in this mackerel fishing, we found the mackerel and utilised it, and in legislation, it simply says that those who start and who find the fish, should get a larger portion when it comes to allocation and setting quota,” Sigurgeir stated. Both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Supreme Court of Iceland came to the same conclusion. “The conclusion was that it was taken from us and given to others, who hadn’t contributed from the beginning.”

The Reykjavík District Court ruled in favour of the seafood companies in the case on Monday morning. Seven companies had originally submitted the claim for damages but five withdrew their lawsuits.

The mackerel quota which the case addresses was allocated by then-Minister of Fisheries Jón Bjarnason in 2010. Rather than allocating the entire quota to those who had experience, some was allocated to small boat fishermen and others in a pool for mid-size ships. Many immediately cast doubt on the legality of the allocation and the Supreme Court ruled that the state had broken the law: only those with previous experience fishing mackerel should have received quota.

Growing profits in few hands

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the seven companies who had initially sued were criticised by government officials for demanding ISK 10 billion in compensation from government coffers in the midst of a recession. As a result, five of the seven companies dropped their cases in 2020.

In a Facebook post about this week’s Reykjavík District Court ruling, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson confirmed the state would appeal. If the seafood companies were to win the case, Bjarni added, he asserted that the compensation would be extracted from the seafood industry rather than taxpayers (presumably through raising taxes on seafood companies or similar measures).

The profits of Iceland’s 10 largest seafood companies grew by 50% in 2019 and continued growing throughout the pandemic, with the price of fish rising dramatically in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vinnslustöðin bought Huginn in 2021 and is among Iceland’s ten largest seafood companies. Just four companies hold around 60% of Iceland’s fishing quota, which has sparked debate on the distribution of wealth in recent years.

Icelandic Cod Stock Endangered by Warming Waters

capelin loðna fishing

Unprecedented changes to the waters surrounding Iceland may put the nation’s cod stock in danger, a professor in biological oceanography has told Fréttablaðið. A new era in our ocean biosphere is under way.

Warming waters, new patterns

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and the leader of the ROCS (Queen Margrethe’s and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir´s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ocean, Climate, and Society).

Among the ROCS’ research projects is analysing core samples extracted from the ocean floor in Reykjanes by a vessel operated by Iceland’s Marine & Freshwater Research Institute (Hafró). The results of the research are being introduced at a conference in Reykholt, Fréttablaðið reports.

“We can expect changes to fish stocks around Iceland, a decrease in certain species, e.g. cod, which prefer colder waters, and an increase in species that prefer warmer waters, e.g. mackerel and sardines,” Katherine told Fréttablaðið.

New research shows that formerly unknown changes are occurring in the waters surrounding Iceland. Katherine emphasises, however, that it’s currently not possible to generalise regarding the effect of these changes on fish stocks in Iceland.

“We’re entering a new era when it comes to the ocean biosphere, including fisheries,” Katherine observed, adding that those who participate in the fishing industry need to be aware of these changes.

As reported by Fréttablaðið this summer, the cod quota will be lowered by 13% next year; Iceland’s Marine & Freshwater Research Institute has overestimated cod recruitment over the past few years.

More research required

Fréttablaðið also quotes Daði Már Kristófersson, professor of economics at the University of Iceland, who stated that there are plenty of unknowns when it comes to the ecosystem surrounding Iceland – and that it is surprising, given the stakes, that Icelanders have not investigated these ecosystems.

Research indicates that capelin – a cold-water fish and a key food for cod – propagation patterns are changing.

As noted in an article in the New York Times in 2019, ocean temperatures around Iceland have increased between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years.

North Atlantic Nations Reach Agreement on Mackerel Quota, Dispute Allocation

iceland fishing

Iceland has reached an agreement alongside Norway, the EU, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the United Kingdom on the maximum catch for mackerel next year.

The new quota agreement for 2023, which was signed yesterday, December 7, will be set at 782,066 tonnes.

The new limit is 13,000 tonnes less than this year, in accordance with the suggestions made by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

See also: Iceland Moves to Reduce Marine Bycatch

So far, the national allocation of the quota has not yet been decided between the signatories, despite numerous meetings these years. Iceland currently demands 16.5% of the quota, or 129,000 tonnes.

Negotiations are set to resume in February of next year, and will need to reach an agreement by the end of March, as the fishing season for most nations will begin in the first half of the year.

It is important for the nations to reach an agreement. If they do not, and they individually allocate their catch according to national demand, it is all but certain that the total catch will far exceed scientific recommendations for sustainable levels of fishing in the North Atlantic.

Bjørnar Skjæran, Norwegian Minister of Marine Fisheries, stated with regard to the recent agreement:

“I am very pleased that we have now finally set a total quota for mackerel. This is something we have worked for for a long time and which means a lot for the fishermen, and for sustainable management of this important fish stock. Despite several rounds of negotiations throughout 2022, there has still not been a complete agreement on the issues of distribution of the stocks and management plan for mackerel. We hope that the remaining questions will be resolved at the beginning of next year.”

The agreement can be read here.




Five Seafood Companies Withdraw From Lawsuit Against Icelandic State

Fishing Harbour

Five seafood companies have decided to withdraw from a joint lawsuit against the Icelandic state due to a dispute over the allocation of mackerel quotas between 2011-2018, RÚV reports. Seven companies had decided to jointly sue the state, demanding over ISK 10 billion ($69.6 million/€63.9 million) in compensation. A statement from the five companies says the decision was made due to the impact COVID-19 will have on the Icelandic treasury.

Eskja, Gjörgur, Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja, Loðnuvinnslan, and Skinney-Þinganes are the five companies that have dropped out of the joint lawsuit. A statement from Supreme Court Attorney Sigurbjörn Magnússon on behalf of the five companies says the COVID-19 pandemic will have a profound effect on Iceland’s treasury and the entire Icelandic community.

“Widespread solidarity and mettle have characterised the community in the past weeks and months. Now everyone needs to work together,” the statement reads. “For this reason, the five undersigned fishing companies have decided to waive their claims against the Icelandic state.”

The seven companies (the final two being Vinnslustöðin and Huginn ehf.) filed the lawsuit last year, claiming that the state’s mackerel quota distribution between 2011-2018 was based on incorrect information and led to losses for the companies. Two Supreme Court rulings in 2018 recognised the state’s liability for damages Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja and Huginn ehf. believed to have incurred due to how the quota was distributed between 2011-2014.

Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated earlier this week that he was optimistic the state would win the case, but in the unlikely situation that it did not, the damages would not be paid using tax money, rather would be financed via the fishing industry itself.

Mackerel War On the Cards As Iceland Increases Quota?

The fishing of mackerel in the North Atlantic is a contested international issue as experts believe the fish is at danger of overfishing. Chris Davies, head of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, stated that a “mackerel war” could threaten the future of Scottish fishermen after Icelandic authorities increased the mackerel quota in the country. Iceland is kept away from negotiations as Icelandic authorities’ attempts to reach an agreement have been unsuccessful, according to Icelandic authorities. The decision to increase the mackerel quote has raised attention in the Shetland Islands, where local news outlets Shetland Times and Shetland News have covered the issue. Icelandic authorities have been accused of putting the valuable mackerel stock at risk in order to solve their financial problems in the short term.

Mackerel fishing has been hotly contested in the last near-decade or so, as Norway and the European Union have been unhappy with Iceland’s magnitude of mackerel fishing. Mackerel started appearing within Iceland’s territorial waters in large numbers in recent years, which is largely attributed to the warming of the seas in connection with global warming. The mackerel fishing quota in Icelandic fishing territory was increased from 108,000 tons to 140,000 tons this past June, in a decision by Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Kristján Þór Júlíusson. The decision was a unilateral one by the Icelandic government as Iceland has not been admitted to the negotiations regarding the division of the mackerel quota in the North-Atlantic. The increase from 108,000 to 140,000 tons takes heed of the total catch of mackerel fishing nations in the North Atlantic rather than the total quota attributed to the nations. All of the mackerel fishing nations, including Norway and European Union nations which hunt in the North-Atlantic, have exceeded their share of the quota in recent years.

Decision irks Shetlanders
The Shetland Islands is a Scottish archipelago which relies heavily on the fishing industry. The aforementioned Davies met with representatives from the Shetland Fishermen’s Associations last week and spoke after the meeting. “Partnership is essential if shared fish stocks are to be managed sustainably. Iceland’s actions are greedy and irresponsible. They are not those of a friendly nation, let alone of a country that is part of the European economic area. I welcome the fact that, despite all the talk of Brexit, the European Commission is acting strongly in defence of Scottish fishermen, and I will ensure that this issue is debated as soon as the European Parliament meets again.”

Beatrice Wishart, the Shetland’s Liberal Democrat candidate for the Scottish Parliament, stressed the importance of mackerel fishing for Shetlanders. “It was good to have the chair of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee in Shetland to hear about the relationship with Iceland over mackerel stocks. His determination that the Commission follows through on their strong rhetoric when it comes to Iceland is exactly the reassurances our fishing community needs. This is enormously important to Shetland. We already know all too well the consequences of a deal done badly, not least because we have had to live with consequences of the last one.”

Unfair demand?
Icelandic news outlet RÚV reached out to the Ministry of Industries and Innovation for comments regarding Davies’ statement. The ministry’s press officer stated that Icelandic authorities and the European Union had been in contact regarding mackerel fishing, most recently in early August. “Iceland has been kept from the negotiation table. Repeated settlement proceedings and Icelanders’ willingness to reach an agreement have been unsuccessful,” part of the statement read. The way the ministry sees it, Iceland’s share of the mackerel quota is both legitimate and responsible. “Hunting beyond scientific advice is a serious issue, but it is not right to lay the burden solely on Iceland’s shoulders. It is an unfair demand for one state to unilaterally decrease fishing,”

Mackerel in the North-Atlantic
In 2011, Norway and the European Union reached a conclusion about mackerel quota in the North Atlantic, placing the figure at 646,000 tons to be divided between fishing nations in the area. At the time, it was decided that Iceland should receive 4% of the total quota, numbering 26,000 tons. However, Icelandic authorities had already released a permit for the fishing of a total of 147,000 tons, which was 22.75% of the total North Atlantic quota rather than the aforementioned 4%. In the past, mackerel only wandered into Iceland’s territorial waters from time to time. In the 90s, mackerel started appearing more regularly before whole swathes started appearing after 2005. In 2010, it is believed that over a 1,000,000 tons of mackerel entered Iceland’s territorial waters. Icelandic authorities first released an official mackerel quota in 2006, to the tune of 4,200 tons. Iceland’s mackerel fishing took a jump year to year, from 36,000 tons in 2007 to 112,000 tons in 2008. Since then, Icelanders have fished mackerel in similar numbers, reaching a high point of 170,000 tons in 2014. As Iceland increased its mackerel quota from year to year, the European Union placed sanctions on its fishing industry as it barred Icelandic vessels from landing mackerel catch in EU ports.

Mackerel quota of Norway, 2019: 164,000 tons
Mackerel fishing in Scotland, 2018: 153,000 tons

No conclusive agreement has been reached regarding mackerel fishing, as mackerel fishing nations continue to fish at a rate higher than suggested by The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). ICES concluded in September 2018 that mackerel was being overfished. Therefore, the ICES suggested that mackerel quota should not exceed 318,000 tons for 2019, for all mackerel fishing nations. This number was 42% lower than the 2018 quota, which was 550,948 tons. The total suggested quota had previously stood at 857,000 tons in 2017. However, all of the mackerel fishing nations unilaterally set their own quotas in 2018, totalling more than 1,000,000 tons of mackerel in total.

The ICES later revised the number for 2019, and the set total mackerel quota at 770,000 tons, more than double the original amount they suggested. This was, however, a 20% reduction from 2018. The revised number is due to miscalculated projections, and the mackerel stock in the North Atlantic has a better standing than originally thought. However, an Icelandic specialist at the Marine Research Institute has warned of the future if mackerel fishing in the North Atlantic continues at a similar rate. “We have been warning authorities about the overfishing which has taken place in the last decade or so. We’ve been lucky with replenishment rates. It is clear, however, that the stocks are diminishing. By these actions, not only those of Icelanders but also other fishing nations, where we are overfishing exceeding recommendations, the stock will diminish and fishing will have to be reduced significantly,” said Þorsteinn Sigurðsson, director of the pelagic ecosystem department of the Icelandic Marine Research Institute.

What next?
Right now, it appears mackerel fishing nations will continue to decide their mackerel quota unilaterally. Meanwhile, specialists warn of the dangers of overfishing. It appears that mackerel grounds are shifting due to the warming of the ocean, and the number of mackerel within Iceland’s territorial waters has increased significantly in recent years. The right to fish a migratory species such as the mackerel will always be hotly contested. It is one of the most valuable quota species landed in the EU economic zone, as the total value of mackerel fishing in the North Atlantic is estimated at one billion €. Therefore, it’s not likely that any party will give in anytime soon. It’s clear a bi-lateral mackerel agreement needs to be agreed to as soon as possible, in order to protect the valuable stock. The question remains: Who does the mackerel belong to?

Best Practices for Saving Beached Whales

Two separate pods of pilot whales have gotten beached on Icelandic shores this summer, RÚV reports, leading experts to apprise locals of how best they can respond to such situations. Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir says that such beachings are becoming a yearly occurrence – an indirect result of warming ocean temperatures – and likely happen when whales pursue their prey too close to the shoreline.

In mid-July, 50 pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. Edda Elísabet assessed the situation at the time, saying that there were many reasons the animals could have gotten stranded. For one thing, she explained, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod. Moreover, strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area, which also could account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Only last week, however, 50 more pilot whales beached in front of the Útskálakirkja seaside church in Garður, on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland. This time, the outcome was far more positive. Rescuers worked through the night and were able to save 30 whales.

Keep them wet, keep them calm

Edda Elísabet has important advice for anyone who encounters beached whales in Iceland. First and foremost, she said, the police should be contacted immediately. Police will then take care to notify the right people, the better to move rescue efforts in the right direction.

Next, she said, you should attend to the animals, albeit with extreme care. “One of the most important things you can do if the whale is alive,” she said, “is to keep it damp.” Whales are poorly suited to dry environments and unable to control their body temperatures on land, which means they overheat easily. Beached whales also need to be protected from the sun, to prevent burning.

Beached whales will be under an enormous amount of strain and distress, says Edda Elísabet, and easily disturbed by loud noises and abrupt movements, such as people just splashing water on them without them being able to see where it’s coming from. “We’ve seen that if there is someone with each whale, placing their hands on it and speaking gently to it or humming or creating a calm environment, that they seem to relax,” she explained.

There have been instances abroad of people contracting illnesses from dolphins and other related species, and so Edda Elísabet says it’s also important that rescuers wear gloves and be sure that the animals do not breathe in their faces. Professional responders don’t take such risks, she noted, and the public shouldn’t either.

Edda Elísabet said that the rescue efforts in Garði were so successful because they focused first on saving the adult females. “If a calf is released first, it’s likely that it will beach itself again because it’s chasing its mother. So it’s important to prioritise healthy females.” However, if a female is not in good condition, it can be dangerous to release her, because she may not be able to lead the pod to safety.

Following the food

Asked about what is causing whales to beach at this rate, Edda Elísabet said that research is still ongoing, but that there is evidence that whale migration patterns around Iceland are changing. They are increasingly traveling around the western and southwestern coasts of the country, most likely following their prey to unfamiliar hunting grounds.

“It’s very likely that their prey is leading this. Their food sources are more sensitive to sea temperatures. In this instance, we’re probably seeing them chasing mackerel and it’s possible that they’re pursuing mackerel more often [because] they’ve had a bad season for squid,” she explained. “Mackerel comes in very close to land, and that could explain why we’ve got a lot of them just off the country’s southwestern and western coasts.”