New Marine Research Vessel Honours Þórunn Þórðardóttir

The research vessel Þórunn Þórðardóttir

A new marine research vessel Þórunn Þórðardóttir, expected to enhance Iceland’s marine research capabilities, will be launched on December 15 and is expected to be delivered in October 2024. The ship’s namesake was a pioneering marine researcher in Iceland.

To replace Bjarni Sæmundsson

A new marine research vessel, the Þórunn Þórðardóttir HF300, will be launched on December 15. Þórunn, the ship’s namesake, was Iceland’s first woman educated in marine research and a pioneer in studying microalgae’s primary production (i.e. the process by which microalgae convert inorganic carbon, typically in the form of carbon dioxide (CO₂), into organic compounds using the energy from sunlight).

Born in 1925 and a graduate of Oslo University, Þórunn received honorary recognition for her contributions to marine research. She adapted the radiocarbon method to Icelandic conditions, and her measurements remain relevant today, as noted by the Marine & Freshwater Research Institute. She passed away in 2007, leaving behind her husband, Odd Didriksen, and their two children.

In a press release published on the government’s website, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, highlighted the ship’s significance for Icelandic marine research and commended the apt naming on the day of the Women’s Strike. The vessel, whose construction has been overseen by the engineering firm Skipasýn at the Astilleros Armón shipyard in Spain, measures nearly seventy metres in length and thirteen metres in width. Powered mainly by oil and equipped with two large batteries, it will replace the Bjarni Sæmundsson in about a year.

Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

Páll Stefánsson. Whaling in Iceland, 2010

Local councils in West Iceland are urging the Minister of Fisheries to lift the ban on whaling implemented just one day before the season was set to begin. The last-minute decision has left some 200 employees of whaling company Hvalur hf. unexpectedly unemployed and will have a significant financial impact on the western region.

On June 20, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir temporarily halted the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report that found whaling breached Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. The ban was implemented to enable an investigation on whether it is possible to ensure that hunting conforms to the legislation.

Only one company, Hvalur hf., was set to hunt whales this season. The company is based in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and typically employs around 200 people, most from the region, at the height of the hunting season. Both the municipal council of Akranes and the local council of Hvalfjörður have encouraged the Fisheries Minister to lift the whaling ban.

Tax and income losses

The Municipal Council of Akranes (pop. 7,986) published a resolution criticising the timing of the decision. “The ban was unexpected and a curveball to many Akranes residents who were counting on employment and income during the summer whaling season,” the resolution reads. The council estimates that it will lose tens of millions of ISK (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in local tax income due to the decision, affecting its ability to finance services to residents. The council stated that the ministry should carry out investigations before making such an impactful decision, not the other way around.

The local council of Hvalfjörður has also published a short statement on the temporary whaling ban, stating that its financial impact is significant, both directly and indirectly. “Hvalfjörður’s local council is not taking a stance on whaling with this statement but urges the Minister of Food to reconsider her decision,” the statement concludes.

Animal Welfare Inspectors to Join Whaling Ships

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) will regularly monitor whether whaling companies are complying with Icelandic laws on animal welfare, thanks to a new regulation implemented by Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir. The Directorate of Fisheries will conduct the monitoring. Only one company is actively whaling in Iceland and Svandís has suggested that their licence will not be renewed after 2023.

The Directorate of Fisheries will be responsible for sending inspectors on whale hunting trips, making video recordings of hunting methods, and keeping a registry of them, according to a government notice. All inspection data will be sent to the supervising veterinarian. The Directorate will also monitor whether the whaling ships are complying with the requirements of their licence, such as regulations on fishing equipment.

“It’s a cause for celebration that these key institutions will collaborate on the inspection,” Svandís stated. “That’s where the expertise lies and the data collected will be able to confirm whether whaling is practised according to law.” The regulation has already taken effect and monitoring will start immediately. The notice does not clarify whether inspectors will be present on all whaling expeditions.

Whaling restarted in Iceland in June 2022 following a four-year hiatus. In an op-ed published in Morgunblaðið newspaper, Svandís stated there is little evidence the practice is economically beneficial to Iceland. The current government regulations allow for whaling until the year 2023, and Svandís stated she sees little reason to permit the practice after that licence expires.

Regional Division of Coastal Fishing Quotas May Be Reinstated

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir would like to make the coastal fishing system fairer, not least by reinstating a regional division of fishing quotas, RÚV reports.

According to the National Association of Small Boat Owners, 700 boats caught 11,000 tons of cod during Iceland’s costal fishing season this year, as well as 1,500 tons of coalfish (also called pollock), and 105 tons of other catch. On average, 656 kilos [1446 lbs] of cod were caught per fishing trip, which is a 6% increase over last year.

Fish prices have never been higher than they are this summer. The average price for cod is 23% higher than it was last year; coalfish is currently priced an astounding 85% higher than it was in 2021.

Nevertheless, the costal fishing season was short—only 46 days—and ended last Friday, about a month earlier than planned. This decision has been widely criticized with some saying that the sea is full of fish that may not be caught.

Not everyone getting their fair share

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir says that the season ended “sooner than we would have liked,” and said the decision to end the season last week had to do with how much fish had been caught overall. But she recognizes that under the terms of the current system, coastal fishermen are not all on equal footing with one another. As such, it is her intention to reinstate the regional division of fishing quotas.

“That will make it more likely that everyone gets their cut,” she explained, “as opposed to when the entire country is defined as one region.” Under the current arrangement, some fishermen are able to catch their fair share, she continued, “especially in the north and east.”

Current system not a failure, but ‘far too complicated’

Under the current quota system, coastal fishing quotas make up 5% of the total catch. In the long term, Svandís says she’d like to see the coastal fishing quota make up a larger part of the overall quota. She was not, however, prepared to quote a particular figure at this time.

Asked if she considered the current fishing system a failure, Svandís said no, but she did concede that it’s a very complicated one. “It’s far too complicated; it can be simplified and clarified and I think that when we’re thinking about simplifying it and clarifying it, we also need to [give some thought to] making it more equitable.”

Whaling Restarts in Iceland Following Four-Year Hiatus

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

Two whaling ships owned by the company Hvalur hf. set off from Reykjavík harbour yesterday to begin the whaling season, RÚV reports. No commercial whaling has taken place in Iceland for four years, though a single minke whale was hunted in 2021. The whaling licence held by Hvalur hf. expires next year, and Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries has indicated that the practice of whaling may be discontinued in Iceland afterwards.

The whale hunting quota issued by Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute for this season is 161 fin whales and 217 minke whales. The quota is based on appraisals from the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and the International Whaling Commission. According to RÚV, the number of fin whales in Icelandic waters has increased steadily since counting began in 1987. Its conservation status is nevertheless listed as “vulnerable” according to the CITES Appendix. As of 2018, the IUCN Red List places minke whales in the “least concern” category.

Conflict with Food and Veterinary Authority

The whale hunting season lasts from June until late September, and some 150 employees are expected to staff Hvalur hf.’s whaling ships, whaling station in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and their processing plant in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area. Hvalur hf.’s CEO Kristján Loftsson has stated that the main reason for the company’s lack of activity since 2018 is conflict with Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority concerning the company’s whaling station. He has also previously cited poor market conditions for whale products and the COVID-19 pandemic as factors.

Hvalur hf. embroiled in controversy

Whaling company Hvalur hf. has been embroiled in several controversies in recent years. Public outcries followed when the company killed a pregnant fin whale and a rare hybrid whale in 2018. Hvalur hf. was at risk of losing their whaling licence after failing to submit captains’ logs for the 2014, 2015, and 2018 seasons. The company has been sued by three of its shareholders as well as by activists.

Iceland’s second-last whaling season?

Earlier this year, Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated she sees little reason to permit whaling after Hvalur hf.’s current licence expires in 2023. In an op-ed published in Morgunblaðið newspaper, Svandís wrote that there is little evidence that whaling is economically beneficial to Iceland. She also pointed out that the controversial nature of the practice has a negative impact on Iceland, though it may be hard to measure. Svandís stated that the government would carry out an assessment on the potential economic and social impact of whaling this year.

Four Working Groups to Overhaul Iceland’s Fisheries Legislation

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has appointed four working groups to analyse challenges and opportunities in Iceland’s fisheries sector and related sectors, as well as to assess the macroeconomic benefits of the existing fisheries management system. The four groups have the task of producing new legislation on fisheries management, possibly a complete overhaul of existing legislation that governs the sector, according to a government notice.

“With regards to the fishing industry, there is a deep feeling of injustice among the public,” Svandís wrote in a column in Morgunblaðið this week. “I think that feeling stems mainly from two things; the consolidation of quota and the feeling that the profits from the shared resource of the people are not divided fairly. The aim of this work is therefore efficient and sustainable utilisation of marine resources in harmony with the environment and society.”

Read More: Fishing Industry Profits Spark Wealth Distribution Debate

The four groups have until the end of 2023 to complete their assignments, which Svandís stated will result in new comprehensive legislation on fisheries management or new legislation on marine resources. Other stated aims are projects in the fields of energy transition, innovation, and marine research, as well as transparency and mapping of ownership in the fisheries sector.

The fishing industry has profited greatly in recent years, sparking debate on whether quota fees or taxes in the industry are high enough to ensure its winnings are fairly distributed. Four companies hold 60% of all fishing quota in Iceland: Samherji, Brim, KS, and Ísfélagið.

Fishing Industry Profits Spark Wealth Distribution Debate

fishing in Iceland

Iceland’s largest seafood companies made huge profits last year, if the first published financial statements are any indication, Fréttablaðið reports. Opposition MPs are arguing that the industry should be taxed more so its earnings are more evenly distributed throughout Icelandic society. According to Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the nation sees the industry as unjust, largely because consolidation of fishing quota has funnelled large profits into the hands of very few individuals.

Billions in profits

At the end of 2020, the seafood industry’s equity was evaluated at ISK 325 billion [$2.6 billion; €2.4 billion]. In the same year, the industry paid just under ISK 4.8 billion [$37.7 million; €35.2 million] in quota fees, while the state treasury faced record financial challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The fishing industry has continued to grow despite the pandemic recession. Between 2020 and 2021, the total value of catch in Iceland increased around 9%, from ISK 148.3 billion [$1.2 billion; €1.1 billion] to ISK 162.2 billion [$1.3 billion; €1.2 billion], according to figures from Statistics Iceland. Prospects continue to be good, especially since the price of fish has risen dramatically in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Four companies hold 60% of quota

Just four companies hold around 60% of Iceland’s fishing quota: Samherji, Brim, KS, and Ísfélagið. Brim reported profits of ISK 11.3 billion [$88.8 million; €82.9 million] last year, and Síldarvinnslan’s profits are similar. In the first three months of this year, Síldarvinnslan has made profits of nearly ISK 4 billion [$31.4 million; €29.3 million]. Samherji, Kaupfélag Skagfirðinga (KS), and other fishing industry giants have not yet submitted financial statements from last year, but similarly high profits are expected.

In a column published in Morgunblaðið yesterday, Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated that the nation viewed the consolidation of fishing quota in so few hands as deeply unjust, and that it felt that this collective resource was not distributed fairly.

Fishing money in other sectors

Opposition MP and Social-Democratic Alliance Chairman Logi Einarsson echoed these words. “We have watched a huge accumulation of wealth in very few hands, which has also led to a small number of individuals not only holding the majority of fishing quota, but due to this same wealth, accumulated assets in many parts of society, in unrelated sectors.” Logi named these sectors as the media, real estate, transport, grocery stores, energy, and even insurance and banking.

“This creates a very unhealthy situation,” Logi continued. “And now that the entire public expects worsening livelihoods and various healthcare and welfare services are underfunded, quota holders should certainly pay more toward public expenditure, they are well capable of it, to say the least.”

Icelandic Company Plans to Recommence Whaling This Summer

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

Whaling company Hvalur hf. plans to recommence hunting whales this summer, after three years of no activity, Vísir reports. The company’s CEO Kristján Loftsson says fin whales will be the target and that market conditions for whale products are good. No whaling has taken place in Iceland since 2018, and the Minister of Fisheries has indicated the practice will be permanently stopped after 2023.

Hvalur hf. plans to begin hunting in June and continue into September, according to Kristján. Some 150 employees are expected to staff the company’s whaling ships, whaling station in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and their processing plant in Hafnarfjörður. Kristján stated that the main reason for the company’s lack of activity in recent years is conflict with the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority concerning the company’s whaling station. He has previously cited poor market conditions and COVID-19 for the decision.

Whaling could be illegal in Iceland from 2023

Whaling licences in Iceland are issued for periods of a few years at a time. In a column published in Morgunblaðið last month, Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated that there was little justification to permit whaling in Iceland after the current licence expires in 2023. There is little evidence that whaling is economically beneficial to Iceland, the Minister stated, adding that the controversial nature of the practice has a negative impact on Iceland, though it may be hard to measure.

Hvalur hf. is Iceland’s main whaling company, and has been embroiled in several controversies in recent years. Public outcries followed when the company killed a pregnant fin whale and a rare hybrid whale in 2018. Hvalur hf. was at risk of losing their whaling licence after failing to submit captains’ logs for the 2014, 2015, and 2018 seasons. The company has been sued by three of its shareholders as well as by activists.

Conflict Over Changes to Lumpfish Quotas

Glettingur

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.

Iceland’s Lumpfish Season Cut Short By Fisheries Minister

Glettingur

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.