There’s a Catch – Can Iceland Save Its Seals Without Hurting Its Fishermen?


Fishing has always been a pillar of Iceland’s economy. In recent decades, consolidation and tech improvements have transformed the industry so that today most commercial fishing, especially for cod, is done with large trawlers. One fish species along Iceland’s coast, however, is still mostly caught by small-town fishermen on little boats: the lumpfish. Lumpfish are an important source of income for independent fishermen in Iceland’s countryside. But this lifeline for Iceland’s smaller communities could be at risk due to the age-old method of catching lumpfish: nets.

While nets are great for catching fish, the problem with them is you can’t decide what or who gets stuck in them. Because they use nets, lumpfish fishermen often also trap more bycatch than other types of fishing operations in Iceland. The bycatch includes different kinds of fish, but also seabirds, seals, and even small whales. In an age where environmental matters are more pressing than ever, the wastefulness of bycatch stings. When the bycatch includes species under threat, as is the case for harbour seals, the problem becomes grave.

International fishing regulators and institutions are pressing Iceland to work on its bycatch problem. Though environmental concerns are pressing, it’s clear that banning lumpfish fishing would devastate Iceland’s independent fishermen and their communities, many of which are already struggling to maintain their way of life.

Fishermen working at the Bakkafjörður harbour

Lumpfish Support Small-Town Fishermen

The lumpfish is caught for its roe. Until recently, the fish itself was discarded after the roe were harvested. Today, however, it is shipped to China. The roe is sold on the European market, mainly to the Nordic countries, France, and Germany, where it is marketed as a more affordable alternative to sturgeon caviar.

Lumpfish season is in spring. Since lumpfish stay close to the coast, they are inaccessible to large ships, meaning that most of them are caught by independent fishermen in small boats using nets just like their forefathers did before them. While Reykjavík’s harbours are large fishing hubs, the majority of lumpfish is landed in small towns and villages far from the capital.

Bycatch Includes Threatened Species

As with all net fishing, Iceland’s lumpfish gillnets carry some risk of bycatch. In fact, Iceland lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable lumpfish fishing certification two years ago due to the number of seals and seabirds caught in nets: specifically harbour seals, grey seals, black guillemot, and great cormorants. While other species constituted a higher percentage of the bycatch, the harbour seal and black guillemot bycatch is more concerning as their stocks are smaller and both are on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red Lists.

Iceland has since taken extensive actions to improve the sustainability of lumpfish fishing. Iceland Sustainable Fisheries Project Manager Kristinn Hjálmarsson is cautiously optimistic that nothing stands in the way of regaining the MSC certification. According to Kristinn, the most important measures taken were the closure of certain fishing grounds to lumpfish nets, new laws and regulations, and easier access to bycatch registration (fishermen can now report bycatch through an app).

A ban on seal hunting introduced last year was a step towards better regulation of bycatch, in addition to a similar ban issued for black guillemot a year earlier. “Finally, it was a matter of changing people’s outlook, making it everyone’s shared goal to make sure this type of fishing is sustainable,” Kristinn says. The government has received a confirmation that its actions were considered sufficient. If the results are not contested in the next few days, Iceland will receive a five-year sustainable lumpfish fishing certificate.

While this is good news, it doesn’t let lumpfish fishermen off the hook. Iceland’s MSC certification is conditional: it requires the fishing not to hinder the recovery of harbour seal or black guillemot stocks during its five-year duration, and it is issued on the condition that alternative measures are reviewed to minimise unwanted catch.


A looming ban on seafood export to the US

While the MSC certification is within reach, (pending a a period of 15  working days during which eligible parties may file a
‘Notice of Objection’ to the Final Draft Report and Determination) , the lumpfish industry faces another, more imminent threat. Bycatch from Icelanders’ lumpfish fishing is currently too high to comply with the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act. Steps have been taken to decrease bycatch of seals and small whales, but if Iceland is not found to have had sufficient success by March of next year, the export of Icelandic seafood to the US could be curtailed for at least four years.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act is a piece of legislation from 1972 banning fishing that endangers marine mammals in the US. A 2016 amendment to the legislation requires other nations to comply with similar regulations to be able to export their seafood to the US. To comply, Iceland will need to turn in data showing they comply with the rules by March 1, 2021, or else the US market will be closed to certain seafood products on January 1, 2022, for at least four years.


Steps taken to improve sustainability insufficient

Though Iceland looks poised to receive a conditional MSC certification, the US stamp of approval is further out of reach. The Marine Mammal Act’s limitations on harbour seal bycatch are much stricter. According to Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) fisheries scientist Guðjón Már Sigurðarson, to avoid a ban on lumpfish imports to the US, Iceland’s annual bycatch of seals may not surpass 40 animals. For the past few years, Icelandic fishermen have reported a yearly bycatch of about 700 seals, thereof around 450 harbour seals. The MFRI estimates the actual number of harbour seals caught to be between 900-1,500 per year. That’s a sizable amount, considering that the harbour seal stock along Iceland’s coast only numbered an estimated 7,600 animals in 2016, down from 30,000 in 1980. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History placed the harbour seal on is Red List in 2018. Its main threats were cited as hunting and getting caught in nets.

Even with the actions taken to secure the MSC certification, a dramatic enough reduction to make lumpfish fishing comply to the US regulations is unlikely. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters. While the MFRI and the Directorate of Fisheries had planned extensive bycatch inspections to gather reliable data, gathering bans and infection prevention restrictions made most of the in-person inspections impossible. The result is that authorities don’t have reliable data on whether their actions have had the intended effect. The next lumpfish season won’t start until next spring – past the deadline to turn in the required data to US authorities.

Bycatch of small whales has also been around the limit, but it’s less likely to be a sticking point in negotiations with US authorities, as the numbers are lower. Furthermore, experiments with sonic whale repellents have shown success. While high-frequency sounds and recorded whale warning calls failed to repel whales at first, a revised version of the warning call repellent has proved effective. No small whales were caught in the nets emitting the warning call, while nets without repellents caught the usual amount. Unfortunately, no such repellent has been found to work on seals. “They’re much too smart,” Guðjón says. “It might work for two or three days, but by then, the seal has learned that there’s no danger. Some of the repellents even ended up attracting seals because they’d discover that the nets emitting the sounds contained plenty of fish.”lumpfish nets


The effects are unclear

Chairman of the National Association of Small Boat Owners Þorlákur Halldórsson says the Ministry of Fisheries has put together a committee to tackle Iceland’s response to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. Still, they’re at a loss on what that response might be. As it stands, complying with the regulations is incompatible with continuing net fishing.

Yet the effects of banning lumpfish net fishing would negatively impact small towns and fishing companies. Lumpfish is the only fish in Iceland that is primarily caught in nets, usually on small boats operated by independent fishermen. Lumpfish fishermen also mostly live outside the capital area, in small towns and villages. “If lumpfish fishing gets hit, it’s the countryside that receives the blow,” said Þorlákur.

He raised the subject of the US import ban at the annual meeting to bring awareness to the issue and the fact that the clock is ticking. “Interested parties such as seafood exporters might not even realise that this threat is imminent or how little time there is left to stop it.” According to Þorlákur, the environmental measures taken last autumn have proved a success. While COVID-19 impacted inspections, the data they did manage to compile suggests that the numbers were something to celebrate. “No one is as qualified as fishermen to minimise bycatch, as they know every grain of sand and every wave of their fishing grounds.”  Still, he agrees with marine scientists that reducing the bycatch of seals to 40 animals per year is just not possible.

young seal

So what then?

How would a US import ban affect Iceland? Ásta Sigrún Magnúsdóttir told Fiskifréttir that “the import ban would only affect products from fishing where the bycatch was over a certain limit. The exact interpretation is yet to be known.” She added that there was no discussion among Icelandic authorities of banning lumpfish fishing. But while the MMPA only affects seafood where the fishing methods cause too much bycatch, it’s not just the lumpfish export that’s at stake. In an email, Ásta stated: “According to the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute’s projections, only lumpfish fishing produces seal bycatch exceeding US limits. Some bycatch is produced by bottom trawlers and cod nets but combined; they are under the bycatch limits. If we apply for a US export permit for lumpfish, all products from fishing that combined exceed the limits will face the same limitations, that is all fishing where seals get caught in fishing gear.” In short, the much more profitable cod export market is also at stake.

The majority of lumpfish products are exported to Europe and China and the amount of lumpfish products shipped to the US annually (2% of Iceland’s total export) is minuscule in comparison to Iceland’s US cod export. While banning lumpfish net fishing is not on the table yet, it’s clear that the impact of the traditional way of fishing is undesirable, both in terms of the environment and international seafood markets. The industry is taking steps to minimise seal bycatch but further steps are necessary to improve living conditions for both independent fishermen in rural areas and harbour seals.