Published June 25, 2012
Since the beginning of our time, humans have had a difficult time not killing and eating everything that moves. Remember the mammoth? Well, we decided that the furry elephants were so cute that we needed to keep them with us at all times, inside our bellies, and well, the mammoth is no more. By 1980, Icelanders were well on their way to catching all our yummiest, fin-bearing friends, so a system of fishing quotas was introduced in 1983, setting a limit of how much each fishing vessel could catch of certain species to prevent overfishing.
That sounds reasonable. Why is it controversial?
Though there are some people who are against any sort of limit on fishing, they are few and far between. But controversy has followed in the system’s wake, starting with the way quota rights were allotted in 1983. And while most people accept the need for a system to manage the fisheries, the devil is in the details, this particular devil being Mammon.
What, you said furry elephants were extinct?
Not mammoths, Mammon, the personification of greed. To add to the controversy, in 1990, the system was changed to an individual transferable quota system. In essence, fishing quota rights became property that fishing company owners could rent out or sell, and many did, becoming filthy, filthy rich. In the process quota accumulated in the hands of a small number of companies. Many small seaside communities, whose existence depended on the fishing industry, became economic wastelands when quota belonging to local companies was sold.
That doesn’t sound reasonable at all. Can’t quotas be given back to those villages?
A parallel system of politically distributed quotas for affected communities was introduced to salve the pain of the worst afflicted. Due to the limited amount available, an inherent consequence of the system, only so much can be distributed. To add to the misery of coastal towns, because of the transferable quota system, they live in fear of quota rights being sold without warning, destroying the community’s livelihood.
Is the government doing anything about it?
The current government has proposed legislation that will alter the current system by making quota-allotment temporary, expiring after twenty years, and introducing a new taxation scheme. As is, the fishing industry, which makes a profit of around 370 million Euros annually, pays around 25 million Euros of those profits in taxes. The new tax earnings will be split between the Icelandic state (40%), municipal and rural communities (40%) and a marketing and development fund for the fishing industry (20%).
I hate to assume, but I’m guessing the fishing company owners have not taken this well.
Oh no, not at all. Landssamband íslenskra útvegsmanna (The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, LÍÚ), the interest group of Icelandic fishing companies, has led the charge against it, ably abetted by the newspaper Morgunblaðið, whose two biggest shareholders are major players in the fishing industry. Thursday, June 7, LÍÚ called for a protest against the government-proposed law.
Was that why there was all that noise in downtown Reykjavík?
Yes. Fishing company owners decided to send a large percentage of their fishing fleet to Reykjavík to bring their employees to the protest. While they were docked in the downtown harbour, the vessels sounded their foghorns relentlessly, making downtown Reykjavík, colloquially known as 101 Reykjavík, about as pleasant an environment to stay in as the garage of a heavy metal band whose members know only one chord, and not how to tune their instruments.
Maybe, like mammoths, they were merely trumpeting to faraway supporters, summoning them to the protest.
A crowd did show up, around two thousand people, but half were counter-protesters, many of whom had their workdays ruined by the endless screaming of foghorns. So when the director of LÍÚ spoke at the protest, he was met by the People’s Foghorn, the en masse foghorn impression of a thousand counter-protesters. As an added insult, when one of the fishing moguls was asked about the all-day foghorn blaring, he implied that the only people disturbed were the latte-sipping layabouts who supposedly make up the inhabitants of 101 Reykjavík.
Don’t be so sensitive. Everyone has a stereotypical impression of places they don’t live in.
Said mogul, Guðmundur Kristjánsson, lives in one of the most expensive properties in 101 Reykjavík. And since he indulged in a bit of harmless stereotyping, let us return the compliment by saying that as a filthy rich fishing mogul whose wealth comes from gaming a system that has devastated Icelandic fishing communities, we can only assume that he sleeps soundly at night, eats well, is kind to his relatives and likes to relieve stress by bludgeoning baby pandas to death.