Iceland’s RFM program gains ground

Published on
November 10, 2014

As reported at the end of last month, Iceland’s cod fishery has been recertified as sustainable according to that country’s responsible fisheries management program. This follows the news that the country’s golden redfish fishery had been certified on 1 May.

Golden redfish is the fourth whitefish/groundfish fishery in Iceland’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone) — cod, haddock, and saithe are the others — to have been certified by Iceland’s FAO based responsible fisheries management certification program since the end of 2010.  

Fisheries are the backbone of the Icelandic economy. The sector accounts for around 40 percent of all exported goods and provides more than one quarter of all foreign currency earnings, said Siurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Iceland’s fisheries minister, in a recent interview.

It is not surprising therefore, that sustainable and responsible fisheries management is of vital importance to the Icelandic economy. However, while those responsible for fisheries in other countries, with the notable exception of Alaska in the United States, are queuing up to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Iceland has set up its own fisheries certification system.

This is based on FAO guidelines, and is independently verified. So why does Iceland, and also Alaska, not follow the herd and beat a path to the door of the MSC?

According to Finnur Gardarsson, project manager of Iceland’s Responsible Fisheries Foundation, there is a certain skepticism about the MSC program. He did not elaborate on this statement and the MSC will doubtless claim that its program is instrumental in preventing the world’s marine fish stocks from disappearing altogether.

Notwithstanding Gardasson’s views about the value of MSC certification, it must be pointed out that Icelandic Group sought and achieved MSC certification for the cod and haddock it sells from Icelandic waters. However, it is a fairly safe bet to assume this is because its retail customers, particularly U.K. supermarkets, insist on it.

In fact Lárus Ásgeirsson, CEO of Icelandic Group at the time, admitted that “the decision to undergo MSC certification for Iceland cod and haddock was market driven.”

Regardless of the merits of various certification systems, what is not in any doubt is how Iceland’s cod stocks are being regenerated due to the strict measures put in place by the Icelandic government.

About ten years ago the cod stock was in a very poor condition, according to Gudjón Einarsson, the editor of Fiskifréttir. The annual catch was drastically reduced from around 200,000 metric tons (MT) to 140,000 MT to allow the stock to recover, and since then the TAC has been gradually increased and is now at 218,000 MT. Scientists predict that the TAC will continue to increase.

True to form, Icelandic quota holders are now chafing at the bit to be allowed to catch more cod, particularly since not only are there more cod swimming in Icelandic waters, but the individual fish themselves are getting bigger. So far the Icelandic government is not giving in to these demands, no matter which political party is in power.

It is vital for the Icelandic economy that Iceland continue to keep absolute control over its fish stocks and it is an object lesson to other countries in how to achieve and maintain a viable fishing industry.

Iceland’s FAO-based responsible fisheries management certification process is an integral part of the country’s overall fisheries program and we can expect to see more fisheries, for example herring, certified according to that system in the future.

It is unlikely that other countries will follow Iceland in setting up their own fisheries certification programs — the MSC has such a stranglehold — but it is intriguing that fishing nations such as Iceland and Alaska have decided to go their own way. Perhaps the fishing industries in the other countries should ask themselves why this is so rather than blindly follow the rest.      

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