Stricter Policy for Fish Farms Following Escapes

Golli. Norwegian divers catch escaped farmed salmon in an Icelandic river, October 2023

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir presented the draft of a new legal framework for fish farming in Iceland yesterday. The draft proposes increased monitoring of fish farms and requiring licence holders to pay “a fair price” for the use of natural resources. Escaped salmon from open-net fish farms in the Westfjords have been found in rivers across Northwest Iceland and the Westfjords in recent weeks, threatening the survival of the country’s wild salmon.

“Fee collection from the sector must reflect that [fish farming] is a matter of utilising limited resources,” Svandís stated. “It is fundamental that those who profit from the use of the country’s natural resources pay a fair price for it. But it is equally important that we set ourselves ambitious, measurable goals in environmental matters and set a timetable on the way to those goals.” The objectives and strategy in the draft extend to the year 2040 and the action plan to the year 2028.

Companies can lose farming licences if fish escape

The draft also includes additional funding for research and monitoring of fish farms, to be carried out by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (Hafrannsóknastofnun). At a press conference yesterday, the Head Secretary of the Food and Agriculture Ministry Kolbeinn Árnason stated that the new regulations would be enforce through the introduction of both positive and negative incentives.

“With tax incentives on the one hand, positive incentives so that people invest in equipment so that the risk [of escaped fish] will be lower,” Kolbeinn stated. “Then we have negative incentives, which include that the company will bear responsibility for escape incidents. The consequences for a company of such an escape will be in the form of the government stripping that company of a permanent fish farming licence.”

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

The draft regulations also propose limiting farming in each fjord to a single company in order to facilitate investigation in the case of escaped fish and to limit the spread of disease. There are currently multiple fjords where more than one company is operating fish farms, particularly in the Westfjords. Companies would have until 2028 to swap licences so that only one company is operating in each zone.

Open-net salmon farms dominate industry

Open-net fish farming in Icelandic waters has grown more than tenfold between 2014 and 2021. Yearly production rose from under 4,000 tonnes to nearly 45,000 tonnes over this period. More than 99% of that production was farmed salmon.

The export value of agricultural products in 2021 was more than ISK 36 billion [$254 million; 237 million]. Most of that figure, or 76%, was farmed salmon, according to RÚV. The aquaculture industry has played a role in supporting development in the Westfjords and Eastfjords, but the largest fish farming companies in Iceland are Norwegian-owned. Escaped salmon from fish farms threatens the survival of wild salmon in Iceland through genetic mixing as well as the spread of disease.

Farmed Salmon Caught in Rivers Across Northwest Iceland

aquaculture farm iceland

Escaped farmed salmon may be swimming in at least eight salmon fishing rivers in Northwest Iceland and the Westfjords. Farmed salmon pose a threat to the survival of wild salmon in Iceland. Two holes were found on a salmon farm net in Patreksfjörður in the Westfjords earlier this month. Authorities are conducting DNA analysis to determine whether fish caught in the rivers came from the Patreksfjörður farm.

Risk of genetic mixing

“Just in the last few days the reports have been pouring in and we seem to have at least eight confirmed cases, in eight different fishing areas, and that is a serious matter. And it remains to be confirmed through samples and research if or where these farmed salmon are from, but these are experienced anglers and guides who have handled these fish and it seems quite clear that this is the case,” Gunnar Örn Petersen, the CEO of The Federation of Icelandic River Owners (Landssamband veiðifélaga) told RÚV.

Gunnar says the salmon that have been caught are similar in size to those that were in the salmon farm in Patreksfjörður, though they could be fry that escaped from the sea pen in Arnarfjörður in 2021. He called the situation the environmental disaster that the federation has warned of since open-net fish farms began operating in Iceland.

“Whether we are talking about the diseases or massive death [of fish in the farms] or salmon lice beyond all limits and now it seems to be happening right here in front of your eyes that genetic mixing is happening. And genetic mixing is irreversible damage that no countermeasures can prevent and that we can’t reverse. It is therefore clear that open-net sea farming will be the final blow for Icelandic salmon stocks if the government doesn’t take the reins.” As many as 3,500 salmon may have escaped from the Patreksfjörður farm, which is owned by company Arctic Sea Farm.

Escaped salmon not unexpected, says fisheries spokesperson

Heiðrún Lind Marteinsdóttir, CEO of Fisheries Iceland, stated that escaped salmon in Icelandic rivers were “not unexpected. The fact that salmon enter a salmon fishing river does not mean genetic mixing,” she argued. “The fact that salmon mixes with wild salmon in some cases does not mean that the wild population is endangered. This has to be a sustained significant situation not just for a year but for decades,” she stated in a Kastljós interview.

Heiðrún says that the risk assessment of genetic mix states that the percentage of farmed salmon in Icelandic rivers can go up to 4% without endangering the wild salmon populations. According to Heiðrún, the percentage across Iceland is currently 0.09%. Gunnar Örn argued that the percentage of farmed salmon in some smaller rivers has, however, reached 4%, “and of course, we believe that those salmon stocks are also important.”

Iceland’s Popularity Grows – Among Walruses

Köfunarþjónustan ehf. / Facebook. A walrus takes a break in Sauðárkrókur, Northwest Iceland

No fewer than four walruses have wandered over to Iceland so far this year. Walruses are not native to the country but since the start of this year, individuals have made stops in East Iceland, the Westfjords, Northwest Iceland, and the capital area. Walruses can be dangerous and readers are warned against approaching them.

Last Thursday, archaeologists working on a dig in Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords spotted a walrus out in the water. It was later spotted sunning itself on the shores of the fjord near Hrafnseyri, RÚV reports, and stayed on into the weekend. Just a few days earlier, a different walrus made himself at home on a floating dock in Sauðárkrókur harbour in Northwest Iceland. “It’s our new pet,” port security officer Ágúst Kárason told reporters. “He’s damn big and hefty, an adult with big tusks.”

Followed to work by walrus

In early June, a staff member of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area, was accompanied by a walrus on his morning commute. “I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street. There he turned around and swam out into the fjord,” Jón Sólmundsson told reporters. “He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too.”

Yet another walrus spotted in Breiðdalsvík, East Iceland in February turned out to be celebrity walrus Thor, who had spent the winter sightseeing around the UK with stops in the Netherlands and France. Walruses seen in Iceland generally arrive from the shores of Greenland or from northern Norway, but Thor may have travelled from the Canadian Arctic. There were no indications that any of the four walruses were the same animal.

Swam from Ireland to Iceland

More walrus visits have occurred in Iceland over the past few years. One was spotted on June 17, 2022 in the town of Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland. A GPS tag on the animal revealed that it had swum over from the Faroe Islands. In September 2021, a walrus spotted in Höfn, Southeast Iceland turned out to be Wally the Walrus, who had been previously spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast). Wally had last been seen in Cork, Ireland before being spotted in Iceland, meaning he had swum over 1,000 km [620 mi] to reach the island.

Icelandic subspecies went extinct after human settlement

Iceland used to be home to a special subspecies of walrus, but it became extinct around 1100 AD, most likely due to overhunting by humans. Walrus tusks were considered precious at the time and were sought-after by royalty in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Other factors, such as rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, may have been factors in the animals’ extinction as well.

Scrapie Diagnosed in Northwest Iceland

Sheep in Iceland

The degenerative and fatal disease scrapie has been diagnosed in sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland, in the Húnavatnssýsla district, RÚV reports. In conformance with Icelandic health regulations, 690 sheep will be slaughtered as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of the disease to other herds. It is the first time the disease has been detected in the region, which will have an impact not just on Bergsstaðir but the entire district. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the entire farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire, as the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. As a result, even after this deep-cleaning, farmers are not able to raise sheep on the land for a set time, and the scorched-earth policy may even affect neighbouring herds and farms.

The Miðfjarðarsveit area, where Bergsstaðir farm is located, will now face significant restrictions on sheep farming for the next two decades, including a ban on transporting sheep between locations and transport of other materials.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect sheep from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read more about the goal of eradicating scrapie from Iceland in the article Good Breeding.

Two Dead, One Injured in Blönduós Shooting

Two people are dead and one injured after a shooting in Blönduós in Northwest Iceland on Sunday morning. RÚV reports that one of the deceased was the shooter. No information about the condition of the injured individual was available at time of writing, but the person was airlifted to the hospital in Reykjavík for medical attention.

The shooting took place in a private home at 7:00 am on Sunday morning. Two people are in police custody in relation to the incident. All of those involved are Icelandic and live in Blönduós.

No police weapons discharged at scene

According to an announcement made by the Northwest Iceland Police, officers responded to the scene after receiving word of a serious incident in which a firearm had been drawn on two individuals. Around the time of the callout, authorities requested the Coast Guard’s assistance transporting the SWAT team from Reykjavík to the scene, but this assistance was ultimately deemed unnecessary, and the helicopter was called back to Reykjavík after take-off.

Responding officers were armed, but no police officers used their weapons at the scene.

The alleged shooter was dead when police arrived, as was one of the shooting victims. Medical help was provided to the injured party and the scene secured. The Red Cross trauma team was also called out to provide counselling services.

The Northwest Iceland Police have taken two individuals in custody in connection with the shooting and will continue to investigate the incident.

Read a recent in-depth article on gun ownership in Iceland.

Biggest Residential Construction Boom Outside of the Capital Since Crash

architecture Gardabær buildings crane urban planning

There are more apartments under construction outside the capital area than there have been since 2008. Vísir reports that there are currently 2,672 apartments being built outside of Reykjavík, the largest share of which—1,100 units—are located in South Iceland.

These figures come via the latest economic outlook report published by Landsbankinn’s economic department. The report also states that based on figures from Statistics Iceland, it appears that apartment prices both in- and outside of the capital are developing in a similar way, although apartment prices outside of the capital are actually rising faster.

Sales have gone up and prices have risen

There’s been a great deal of demand for housing over the last few years and the economic outlook report says that post-pandemic, low interest rates and changing consumption habits have boosted demand considerably. Sales have gone up and prices have risen.

Since last July, the residential market price index has gone up 22% for single-family homes in the capital area, while multi-family units have gone up by 24%. But the index outside the capital over the last twelve months has gone up even more: 29%.

Taking a broader snapshot of housing price increases across the board: compared to pre-pandemic, in February 2020, the residential market price index has gone up between 45 – 47%, regardless of whether it’s single- or multi-family homes in question, within the capital, or outside of it.

Most new builds in South Iceland, fewest in the East, Northwest, and Westfjords

Construction outside the capital is split pretty evenly between multi-unit and single-family residences. So far this year, there’s been a 12% increase in the number of apartments under construction, as compared to an over 33% increase between the end of 2020 and the early months of 2021. Before that, between 2009 and 2016, very few new apartments entered the real estate market, although there were many under construction.

The greatest proportion of new residential builds outside the capital area are, as mentioned, in South Iceland. The housing stock in the region has gone up by 4% in the last year, amounting to almost 500 new apartments. In the first seven months of this year, the stock increased by 1.7%, or just over 200 new apartments.

The housing stock on the Suðurnes peninsula alone has gone up by 2.5% since the start of the year; in 2021, it went up by almost 2% in the course of the year. This is on par with the increase of housing stock throughout all of North Iceland combined, where 260 new apartments were completed last year.

There are currently 500 apartments under construction on Suðurnes and in West Iceland, around 350 in Northeast Iceland, and fewer than 100 in East Iceland, Northwest Iceland, and the Westfjords.

Dolphin Species Never Before Seen in Iceland Beaches in Northwest

Two dolphins of a species never before seen in Iceland washed ashore in Hrútafjörður in Northwest Iceland last week. RÚV reports that the carcasses of both mammals were collected yesterday by a biologist at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, who says it is not unlikely that the animals were drawn north by warming seas.

One of the dolphins was already dead when it washed ashore. The other beached itself trying to follow its companion. The second dolphin was not going to survive and so was euthanized under the advisement of a veterinarian just before the weekend.

The dolphins were both Risso’s dolphins, sometimes called gray dolphins. Their remains were collected by biologist Sverrir Daníel Halldórsson, who will conduct autopsies on both. Sverrir Daníel says he’s found no evidence that Risso’s dolphins have ever been observed around Iceland before, although they have been seen around the Faroe Islands.

“It’s a warm-water species,” he explained. “They’re found a bit to the east of Ireland and Northwest Scotland. But the largest number is found further south, in warmer seas.”

Sverrir Daníel thinks the dolphins were most likely drawn out of their natural habitat and so far to the north by warmer currents. Both animals appeared quite emaciated, he said. “It could be that they wandered off course and couldn’t find any food.”

Around the Westfjords—in a Tractor—in Seven Days

In 2015, Grétar Gústavsson and Karl Friðriksson circumnavigated Iceland on a 1963 Massey Ferguson 35X tractor to raise funds for Vinátta (‘Friendship’), Save the Children Iceland’s anti-bullying project. However, at the time, the lifelong friends skipped over the Westfjords. Visír reports that they’ve now been challenged to complete the full journey-by-tractor by circling the peninsula in seven days.

The pair set out from beloved roadtrip rest stop Staðarskáli in Northwest Iceland on Wednesday, July 13 and are set to finish their 950-km [590 mi] voyage in Hvanneyri on Wednesday, July 20. They will be accompanied on their travels by Blær, Vinátta’s purple teddy bear mascot, and all three will be popping in to say hi at Westfjord kindergartens along the way.

‘It’s important to have dreams’

Karl and Grétar have been friends for sixty years. Their lives have taken them down different paths—Grétar is described as a master auto mechanic and farm equipment and vintage car enthusiast, while Karl is the managing director of the Icelandic Center for Future Studies—but their friendship has never faltered. The ’63 Massey Ferguson 35X tractor is symbolic for them because it’s the tractor that captured their imaginations when they were growing up in Fitjardalur, Northwest Iceland. When the first one arrived in the countryside, it was “like a Rolls Royce had driven into the farmyard.”

“Having dreams is important for people young and old,” remarked Grétar. “Sometimes dreams come true in different forms—which might even be better than the original version. The main thing is to work on your dreams and let them guide the course of your life, within reason.”

Donate to the cause

After their 2015 tractor trip, Karl and Grétar further supported Vinátta by publishing the picture book Friends of Ferguson: A Trip Around the Country Against Bullying. All proceeds went directly to the cause. This trip will also support Save the Children Iceland’s anti-bullying project. To contribute, send a text message (within Iceland) with the message “Barnaheill” to 1900 to automatically donate kr. 1,900. You can also make a donation via the page on Save the Children Iceland’s website, here.

Grétar and Karl’s itinerary is as follows:

July 13: Staðarskáli to Hólmavík

July 14: Hólmavík to Hamar

July 15: Hamar to Ögur

July 16: Ögur to Ísafjörður

July 17: Ísafjörður to Bíldudalur

July 18: Bíldudalur to Flókalundur

July 19: Flókalundur to Reykhólar/Hríshóli

July 20: Reykhólar to Hvanneyri

Road and Coastal Administration Work All Night to Prevent Route One from Flooding

Employees of the Road and Coastal Administration worked through the night to ensure that rising water levels in the Djúpadalsá river Skagafjörður, North Iceland would not flood Route One (the Ring Road). RÚV reports that breakwaters along a five-kilometre stretch of the road have been damaged. Skagafjörður has received a great deal of rain in recent days and all the rivers in the area are rising.

Road and Coastal workers used bulldozers to try and reinforce breakwaters that were at risk due to rising waters and contain the Djúpadalsá river. Route One also needed fortification, said Stefán Öxndal Reynisson, an inspector with the Road and Coastal Administration in Sauðárkrókur.

“These breakwaters are really damaged for probably close to five kilometres and the only channel leading into the Djúpadalsá river is now just overflowing with stuff after we’d gotten it in pretty good shape when we dredged it for three or four years.”

The extent of the damage has yet to be determined, but it’s estimated that it will cost tens of millions of krónur to rebuild the breakwaters that have been destroyed.

Screenshot, RÚV

Unusual for many rivers to flood at once

Stefán says that usually, only one river floods at once. “But it was just all the rivers yesterday evening and overnight. It didn’t help that the Héraðsvötn river was also full and there was a bit of a bottleneck into the Djúpadalsá river as well.”

There’s still a great deal of water in the rivers, all of which are churning dark and muddy. It’s expected that the Road and Coastal Administration will need to spend a great deal of time reshaping the channel of the Djúpadalsá river so that it will be able to accommodate the next flood. But for now, the sole focus is on keeping the river under control until conditions improve.

“It’s a little colder now, so I’m hopeful that the water level in the river will go down so that we can see what we’ve really got to do here,” said Stefán.

Storms and Poor Driving Conditions Across Iceland Today

The Icelandic Met Office has issued orange and yellow weather alerts across North and West Iceland today as well as the Reykjavík capital area and the Highland. Conditions will be worst in the Westfjords and Northwest Iceland, and both locals and tourists are discouraged from travel in those regions today. Those planning to travel between in West Iceland today should be aware that Route 1 may be closed over Holtavörðuheiði.

Travel discouraged in Westfjords and Northwest

North-westerly and northerly winds will likely reach speeds of 28 metres per second in the Westfjords and Northwest Iceland, bringing blowing snow and sleet affecting visibility. People are encouraged to avoid travel and fasten outdoor furniture and belongings.

Wind speeds in Northeast, North, and West Iceland, as well as the uninhabited Highland, are expected to reach 23 metres per second today. Driving conditions will be poor and locals are encouraged to secure and outdoor furniture or items. Blowing snow is also in the forecast for these regions.

Wind speeds will be slightly less in the Reykjavík capital area, though they may still reach a considerable 18 metres per second with snow showers expected. The Met Office warns that driving conditions may deteriorate quickly.

The stormy conditions are expected to subside by midnight tonight. Locals and travellers are encouraged to monitor weather and road conditions.