Iceland takes umbrage with EU sanctions

Published on
October 18, 2012

Benedikt Jonsson, Icelandic Ambassador to the United Kingdom, took to the stage last week at a high-level fishing industry seminar in London to justify his country’s stance in the ongoing North East Atlantic mackerel dispute.

With the next round of catch share negotiations just a few weeks away, Jonsson stressed his country’s claim for a bigger allocation is valid because there has been a sharp rise in mackerel stocks in Icelandic waters.

These coastal state talks are expected to have an extra edge about them following the European Parliament’s (EP) vote in favor for a range of sanctions that could be used against Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

Essentially, this landmark ruling, made at the end of September, gives the European Commission the authority to impose restrictions on imports of any fish caught by countries engaged in non-sustainable fishing of jointly-fished stocks, which of course includes North East Atlantic mackerel.

Ever since the new laws were confirmed, there have been very public calls by EU-based fishermen’s groups with a vested interest in the fishery for the commission to exercise its new powers. Scotland has been among the most vociferous as mackerel is the fleet's most valuable catch — worth GBP 164 million (EUR 202 million, USD 265.1 million) in 2011.

Speaking at the one-day forum, called “Future of U.K. fishing: Reforming the Common Fisheries Policy, marine environment policy and towards a more sustainable fishing industry,” Jonsson said that while Iceland and the Faroes have been “portrayed as the unreasonable parties” in the dispute, his country is still “committed to finding a long-lasting solution” to the mackerel saga. Furthermore, it has in the recent past expressed its desire for all stakeholders to agree to move toward the fishing level recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

As recently as last month, Iceland proposed that the coastal states should at least work toward a long-term solution and agree on an overall 20 percent catch reduction, he said.

“We haven’t had any response, so we have taken the silence as a rejection. And we are now faced with the threat of sanctions from the EU.”

Iceland has unilaterally increased its mackerel catch from 363 metric tons (MT) in 2005 to 147,000 MT in 2012. At the same time, the Faroes’ quota for mackerel soared from 27,830 MT in 2009 to 149,000 MT in 2012. Meanwhile, Norway and the EU (representing Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom) established a bilateral agreement for 2012 that gave Norway a total allowable catch (TAC) of 181,085 MT and 396,468 MT to the EU.

Jonsson confirmed that Iceland didn’t start fishing mackerel in any great quantity until 2007, and was therefore not invited to catch share negotiations until 2010, when the EU and Norway recognized the country as a North East Atlantic coastal state.

“We object to being targeted against when the EU and its member states are taking an oversized proportion of the stock. The EU and Norway in 2011 and 2012 unilaterally decided to take 90 percent of the TAC,” said the ambassador. “They expected, in other words, that Iceland and the Faroes would settle for less than 10 percent. That’s the unreasonable side of the EU.”

The underlying factor in the mackerel fishery is the alleged overfishing of the stock, said Jonsson, who added that “in the eyes of the EU” this is putting the sustainability of the mackerel at risk.

“But I think it’s fair to say that overfishing doesn’t happen overnight. Iceland didn’t come to the negotiation table until 2010, but prior to 2007, when Iceland started to fish mackerel in some volume, serious overfishing took place. Scientific analysis says the total removal of mackerel stocks may have been 1.7 to 3.6 times greater than the recommended catch,” he said.

But Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), insisted that sanctions against Iceland “are the only recourse,” and told Jonsson that he was attempting to “defend the indefensible.”

ICES recommended a mackerel TAC of 600,000 MT this year, but unilaterally Iceland and the Faroes between them have declared a catch of 300,000 MT, said Armstrong.

“That is not responsible fisheries management in any shape or form,” he told the ambassador. “How can it possibly be a sensible way to proceed if you unilaterally decide to take 50 percent of the ICES recommended catch as your starting point?

“No-one has ever said Iceland and the Faroes don’t have an entitlement to the mackerel catch but we are now being subjected to what may be regarded as piracy.”

Representing Norway at the seminar, Kim Traavik, Norwegian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, believes Iceland and the Faroes are entitled to a larger share of the mackerel TAC, but said the quotas they have granted themselves “are excessive” and “go far beyond what they can reasonably aspire to.”

He added that accepting both states’ current claims to the fishery would set a dangerous precedent for future sharing arrangements.

“The present overfishing is a concern for us and we remain committed to an equitable solution but we will not accept a deal for any price,” Traavik said. “Cooperatively, we have been standing very close to the EU on this issue and we believe that this common stance will enhance the prospects for reaching a sustainable solution.”

With EU officials also warning it’s possible the mackerel standoff could undermine Iceland's application to join the Union, pressure to reach an agreement in the next round of negotiations is now being exerted from a number of sides. Could this be the beginning of the end of the European mackerel war?

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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