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.

New Study Shows Large Hole in Arctic Ozone Layer

mosaic polarstern

A major research expedition has recently shed new light on the extent to which the arctic ozone layer has been depleted.

The MOSAiC program, then the largest research expedition ever of the Arctic Ocean, set off in September 2019. Hundreds of scientists representing some twenty nations were involved with the project.

Central to the project was the German ice breaker “Polarstern,” or Polar Star, which was left adrift in polar ice for a year. Instruments aboard the vessel took atmospheric measurements, and the results of the study are now being discussed at the Arctic Round Table.

A key finding in the study was that even after the international banning of ozone-harming substances, the largest hole ever found in the ozone was detected over the Arctic at an altitude of some 20km.

Dr. Markus Rex, a German researcher at the University of Potsdam, stated that: “the ozone layer is not improving. Things are getting worse in the Arctic. Now we understand that it is because the decomposers from the gas are still present in the atmosphere. Climate change makes them more aggressive: it’s bad news for the future of the ozone layer in the Arctic.”

Nevertheless, there is some occasion for hope.

Dr. Markus Rex continued: “We saw that under the ice the sea reaches a freezing point down to a depth of 14 meters in the winter. There is a healthy base for winter ice formation, and we believe we are still in a position to save the ice if we stop global warming. It responds very linearly to warming, and if we stop the warming, the melting of the ice will stop. That is good. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. We are the last generation that can save the sea ice in the Arctic.” 

Read more about the MOSAiC expedition here.

‘There are Direct Connections with Human Development’: Stickleback Conference Sheds Light on Human Genetics

The 10th International Conference on Stickleback Behaviour and Evolution was held at the University of Hólar in North Iceland this week. RÚV reports that the stickleback is one of the most researched fish in the world and has led to significant advances in the fields of both ethology, the science of animal behaviour, and genetics. Research on stickleback behaviour laid the foundation for modern behavioural science, even earning Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen a Nobel Prize in 1973.

The Stickleback Conference made its triumphant return after a long hiatus due to COVID-19. The last conference took place in Kyoto, Japan, in 2018. The turnout was good for this year’s five-day event at Hólar: 70 scientists from around the world gathered to share their research. Professor Bjarni Kristofer Kristjánsson said those gathered only scratched the surface of what they could potentially discuss when it comes to the small, but fascinating fish.

“The stickleback is one of the most researched fish in the world, and there are many reasons for that,” he said. “Essentially, people in behavioural studies have been really interested in them. They’ve got interesting reproductive behaviour. The male fish dances before spawning and builds a nest and becomes really colourful and manifests really strong behavioural patterns.”

Illustration of the threespine stickleback. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, CC 2.0.

Sticklebacks are also ideal research subjects because they are easy to raise in tanks and selectively breed, which is very useful when conducting experiments.

“[The stickleback] has opened up a number of avenues [for us] to try and understand,” said Bjarni. “Like the development and evolution of vertebrates. We are vertebrates, of course, so there are direct connections with human development.”

Bjarni says that sticklebacks are central to a wide range of diverse research, which is part of why the conference is so much fun.

“You might hear lectures from ecologists or parasitologists. Then there’ll be some lectures about the genome and the development of the Y chromosome.”

Indeed, the conference schedule was quite varied including talks on paternal care in threespine sticklebacks, developmental plasticity in eco-evolutionary population dynamics, “evolutionary ménage a trois,” personality-dependent colonization success, Molecular mechanisms of adaptation to freshwater, biological memory of climate variability and extreme events, foraging niche and diet variation, positive selection throughout regulatory elements on the threespine stickleback Y chromosome, “a stickleback approach to human genetic evolution,” and much more.

Feeding Habits of Westman Islands’ Mysterious Nocturnal Birds Tracked

Leach's petrel

GPS trackers weighing just 0.95 grammes will help scientists track the movements of three species of elusive nocturnal birds that stay in the Westman Islands, South Iceland, for a part of each year, RÚV reports. The three species are the manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus), Leach’s petrel (Oceanodroma leucorrhoa), and the storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus), all of which winter in the southern hemisphere – on both sides of the Atlantic.

“This has never been done in Iceland before, and we are in fact mapping the feeding areas of these species,” explained Erpur Snær Hansen, director of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre. Results from the miniscule trackers placed on Leach’s petrels and manx shearwaters have already begun to arrive, while data from the storm petrels are expected to arrive later this summer.

Travelled 600 kilometres to feed

The three species are related and are all nocturnal. “They only come ashore to the outlying Westman Islands at night, so they are rarely seen anywhere else,” Erpur stated. He compared the petrels’ flight to that of bats, saying they were “mysterious in many ways.”

The GPS trackers have revealed that the Leach’s petrels in the Westman Islands feed to the west of the archipelago, at the edge of the continental shelf. However, data shows that individuals sometimes travel much farther. “One of them decided to go all the way to Rockall, which is 600 kilometres [373 miles] to the south, and they go quite far,” Erpur remarked. “They go to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the big whales are, so they go south and across a very large area.”

Rockall Liam Mason
Liam Mason via Wikimedia Commons Images. Rockall, some 600 kilometres south of Iceland.

 

Numbers have decreased in the Atlantic

Placing the minuscule trackers on the birds is not easy. “It’s a bit of a hassle because they live underground, and we need to find them and get them out,” Erpur explained. “We play their call and they answer us and then we know where they live, but it’s another challenge altogether to get in there, grab them, and put the equipment on.” The GPS devices do not include transmitters, so the birds must be retrieved in order to read the data.

The Leach’s petrels that summer in Iceland winter in both Namibia and Brazil. Manx shearwaters winter in Argentina. Erpur says the species are not numerous and the number of Leach’s petrels in the Atlantic has decreased. The data is expected to help evaluate how the birds are doing, as well as compare the two petrel species.

Scrapie-Resistant Sheep Multiply in East Iceland

Karólína Elísabetardóttir - Hvammshlíð - Húnavatnssýsla

The lambing season is going well at Þernunes farm in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland, where 27 lambs have been born that carry the ARR genotype that protects them against the fatal disease scrapie, RÚV reports. The genotype was first found in Iceland on this very farm last January, through a research project that analysed thousands of genetic samples from sheep across the country. Researchers believe that careful breeding of sheep that carry the ARR genotype could eradicate scrapie from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Scrapie is a degenerative and fatal disease that affects sheep. Because it is highly contagious and can persist in flocks for decades, a flock in which the disease is discovered must be culled. Within the European Union, sheep that carry the ARR genotype do not need to be culled, even when scrapie is diagnosed within their flock, as research shows the gene protects them from both contracting and transmitting the disease.

Þernunes is home to the only ram so far found in Iceland to carry the gene: Gimsteinn (Gemstone). He carries the genotype on one chromosome, meaning that his descendants have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Þernunes farmer Steinn Björnsson says that by the end of lambing season, he expects around 40 of the farm’s lambs will carry the gene.

Another genotype known to protect sheep from scrapie, T137, was also recently found in at least four Icelandic sheep. Extensive research in Italy has found that T137 protects sheep from scrapie, but it is not officially recognised by the EU as the ARR genotype.

Thousands Diagnosed in Icelandic Blood Cancer Study

doctor nurse hospital health

More than 3,600 people have been diagnosed with pre-stage myeloma in an Icelandic study involving blood screening, Vísir reports. Nearly 60 entered drug treatment as a result, which has been effective. The European Research Council has decided to support the research program with a grant of €2 million [ISK 285 million; $2.2 million], enabling the study to continue.

Myeloma is an incurable type of blood cancer that develops from bone marrow cells. Patients’ outlook is generally better when it is diagnosed early. In the autumn of 2016, a national campaign was launched in Iceland to screen for the disease; a collaboration between the University of Iceland, the National University Hospital, and the Icelandic Cancer Society. The aim of the study is to investigate the effects of screening for pre-stage myeloma, to investigate the causes and consequences of the disease, and to improve the lives of those diagnosed with myeloma and search for a possible cure.

More than 75,000 samples have been screened in the study, diagnosing more than 3,600 people with pre-stage myeloma, and almost 300 with advanced myeloma. Those with advanced myeloma have been invited to participate in drug trials with the aim of preventing the progression of the disease.

Effective drug treatment of precursors

Sigurður Yngvi Kristinsson, professor of blood diseases at the University of Iceland’s School of Medicine and a specialist at the National University Hospital, is the recipient of the European Research Council grant. “This is a great recognition for me and the whole research team and the good work that we have been doing lately, and, of course, it enables us to continue researching myeloma and its precursors,” he stated.

“By searching carefully, we find people who are on the verge of developing myeloma,” Sigurður Yngvi explained. “They have what is called smouldering myeloma and are at great risk of that developing into myeloma. And we have been able to intervene before they get myeloma and give them drug treatment, and have nearly 60 people in drug treatment now and some have completed two years of drug treatment with great success, and that is perhaps the biggest milestone.”

Genetic Jackpot: the Icelandic Sheep that Could Eradicate Scrapie

sheep

Six sheep on the farm Þernunes in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland, hold the key to eradicating the fatal disease scrapie from the country. RÚV reports that the sheep carry a gene that is recognised by the European Union to protect against the disease. This is the first time the genotype has been found in Iceland, and could be pivotal to winning the fight against the disease, which has plagued Icelandic farms for over a century.

The genotype, known as ARR, has never before been found in Iceland, despite great efforts from researchers. Another genotype known to protect sheep from scrapie, known as T137, was also recently found in at least four Icelandic sheep. Extensive research in Italy has found that T137 protects sheep from scrapie, but it is not officially recognised by the EU as the ARR genotype.

Scrapie is a degenerative and fatal disease that affects sheep. Because it is highly contagious and can persist in flocks for decades, a flock in which the disease is discovered must be culled. Within the European Union, sheep that carry the AAR genotype do not need to be culled, even when scrapie is diagnosed within their flock, as research shows the gene protects them from both contracting and transmitting the disease.

Read More: Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland

Researchers sequenced 4,200 DNA samples from sheep around Iceland and sheep in Greenland that were of Icelandic origin. The six sheep in Reyðarfjörður that carry the gene trace their lineage to Reykhólasveit and Strandir, in the Westfjords, giving researchers hope the ARR genotype is to be found elsewhere in Iceland. Researchers plan to analyse DNA samples from some 15,000 sheep this winter to determine whether they carry the genotype.

The ARR genotype could eradicate scrapie through careful breeding. Researchers say, however, that it will be a challenge to spread the genotype through the population as quickly as possible without reducing diversity in the Icelandic sheep stock.

Sheep With Rare Genotype Could Eradicate Scrapie

Sheep that carry special genes could hold they key to eradicating the fatal disease scrapie from Iceland, RÚV reports. The ewes Tignarleg, located on a farm in Northwest Iceland, and Móbotna, on a farm in the northeast, both carry a rare gene that protects them against the fatal, degenerative disease. So far, four ewes that carry the gene have been found in the Icelandic sheep stock, but no rams. The findings are part of an international study that is providing hope that scrapie could be eradicated from Iceland within the next decade.

The Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre is taking part in the study alongside experts from Germany, England, and Italy. Guðfinna Harpa Árnadóttir, chairperson of the National Association of Sheep Farmers and a farmer herself, says that the genotype, known as T137, has been found to protect sheep against scrapie in three large Italian studies. “So we have hopes that the same applies to the scrapie that has been plaguing us here in Iceland. But it is yet to be confirmed by further research. But it’s very exciting, at the least, to find that genotype,” Guðfinna stated. 

Read More: Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland May Become a Reality

Móbotna, who belongs to Guðfinna, not only carries the rare genotype, but also sports rare colouring and has four horns. Guðfinna says researchers are seeking out sheep with unusual characteristics, as it might indicate they are more likely to carry rare genes. “Hopefully we’ll find more exciting animals that can help us in this fight against scrapie. Of course, in continuation, a breeding plan will be made, about how we plan to cultivate [the genotype] further.”

Scrapie is believed to have arrived in Iceland via an English ram that was transported to Skagafjörður fjord in 1878. It is a fatal, degenerative disease with no treatment or cure and it is highly contagious (between sheep). The prion that causes it can persist in soil and flocks for decades. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

Find No Evidence of Seafood Fraud in Iceland Despite 2016 Study Results

fish restaurant

Restaurant inspections in Reykjavík have failed to find evidence of seafood fraud indicated by a 2016 study that made international headlines recently, Vísir reports. The study indicated that Icelandic restaurants had some of the highest rates of mislabelled fish in all of Europe. Óskar Ísfeld Sigurðsson, head of food control at the Reykjavík Public Health Authority, says the study results do not reflect food inspectors’ experience.

UK media outlet the Guardian published an article last week consolidating 44 studies of seafood products sold in restaurants, markets, and auctions around the world over the past several years. The article stated that of some 9,000 products, nearly 40% were incorrectly labelled. In some cases a cheaper fish was labelled as a more expensive variety, while in others potentially poisonous species were mislabelled, leading to health risk.

Study Suggested 40% of Fish Mislabelled

One of the studies cited was published in 2018 and concerned restaurants across Europe. It found the highest percentage of incorrect labelling in Spain, Iceland, France, and Germany. The Icelandic samples for the study were taken at 22 restaurants in 2016. DNA analysis revealed that 23% of the samples belonged to another species than was advertised and fish had been mislabelled at 40% of restaurants.

Jónas Rúnar Viðarsson of Icelandic Food and Biotech Consulting Company Matís was one of the authors of the study. He stated that a comparable inspection has not taken place since. Conducing such studies is expensive and requires special funding. “It is mainly the Public Health Authority in Reykjavík that has some ability to do something, but it also has to monitor a lot of restaurants. These kinds of studies are expensive,” he stated.

Mistakes More Likely Explanation than Scam

Óskar Ísfeld Sigurðsson, head of food control at the Reykjavík Public Health Authority, says the organisation has placed great emphasis on tracing the origin of food products in recent years. While they do not carry out DNA testing like that conducted in the 2016 study, they inspect restaurant menus and whether the correspond to raw ingredients in their freezers and fridges.

“If we see expensive fish on the menu and some cheaper fish in the fridge, it would arouse our suspicion, but we do not see any examples of this. These results don’t match our experience,” Óskar said about the 2016 study. Óskar says he expressed doubt about the study’s results when it was first published, saying he didn’t believe it painted a realistic picture of the situation. He requested information on which restaurants had been found to falsely label fish, but was denied, as the data was collected for a scientific study and not public health monitoring.

According to Óskar, the mislabelling could more likely be attributed to servers incorrectly naming fish on the menu or simply unintentional mistakes. There have even been examples of restaurants selling more expensive species as cheaper species, something no restaurateur would do on purpose.

Over 75% of Icelanders Believe Immigrants Have a Positive Impact

asylum seeker program Birta

A comprehensive study conducted in early 2018 found that over 75% of Icelanders believe immigrants have had a positive impact on Icelandic society, RÚV reports. The study was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Akureyri in North Iceland. It covers topics such as immigrants’ status on the labour market, within the school system, and their political and social engagement in Iceland.

Results a Pleasant Surprise

While foreign citizens accounted for 2.6% of Iceland’s population in the year 2000, in 2020 that figure had risen to 13.5%. Titled “Inclusive Society? Adaptation of Immigrants in Iceland,” the University of Akureyri study aimed to reveal how immigrants were adapting to Icelandic society as well as how Icelandic society was adapting in return. Many of the results were a pleasant surprise for Hermína Gunnþórsdóttir and Markus Meckl, professorts at the University of Akureyri and the two editors of the study.

While over 75% of Icelanders reported they agree or strongly agree that immigrants have had a positive impact on society, while just 4% stated they disagree or strongly disagree. Two out of three Icelanders stated they had invited an immigrant to their home. “The attitude seems to be positive and in fact more positive than one would expect in many ways. Maybe this says something about Icelandic society. In any case, this came as a pleasant surprise,” Hermína stated.

Some Schools Lack Comprehensive Policy

While attitudes toward immigrants are generally positive, Icelandic society could do better in some areas when it comes to providing them services, particularly in the educational system. The study found that many municipalities had not formulated clear policies when it came to teaching immigrants and addressing their needs. Hermína pointed out that teachers in smaller communities may lack the training and knowledge needed to adapt their methods. “This is something that municipalities need to take as more of a holistic policy and look at what kind of society we want to build up.”

Nearly 60% of Immigrants Made Under ISK 400,000 Per Month

In 2018, the average monthly salary for full-time workers in Iceland was ISK 721,000. When looking at the distribution of total wages, the most common monthly wage was between ISK 550,000-600,000. According to the University of Akureyri study, nearly 60% of immigrants made ISK 400,000 per month, significantly below national averages. Though Iceland has a gender pay gap that affects all women, women of foreign origin are much worse off in terms of wages than women who are Icelandic, according to Hermína. “This needs to be looked at systematically because we do not want inequality to increase. We want equality and equal rights for everyone here. Not just those who were born and raised here.”

Language Education is Key to Participation

Unsurprisingly, the study found immigrants who had learned Icelandic were more active in society and politics. “For example they are more likely to vote and actually participate more in society. So it’s very important that we offer people a good education in Icelandic.” The study found, however, that immigrants were not satisfied with the Icelandic language courses available to them.

According to Hermína, an important step in achieving further equality is to increase the number of immigrants working within the school system as well as in positions of responsibility.