Fishy Tales - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Fishy Tales

Fishy Tales

Published June 23, 2009

According to genetic scientist Einar Árnason at the University of Reykjavík, unless there are significant changes in Icelandic fishing practices, cod stocks could plummet within ten years.  Yet, despite a paper published in May in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, and Árnason’s recent open letter to the Marine Research Institute (MRI) and the Ministry of Fisheries, his findings have fallen on deaf ears. This seems rather strange considering much of Árnason’s research was funded by the MRI itself.
This news hits Icelandic authorities only a few months after the nation is pinning its hopes on a fishing industry that accounted for more than one third of Iceland’s exports last year.  Nearly a month since Árnason’s findings were published there has been little debate with the government and virtually no mention in the Icelandic media.  Speaking to Árnason in his office, he tells me he is stunned by the silence.
‘Believe it or not, you’re the first journalist in Iceland to contact me. This is not something to just brush under the carpet.’
Scientists predicting the collapse of local cod stocks in the 1980s also met with little reaction from the Canadian government until 1992; and by then, it was too late.
History in the making: The end of canadian cod
Five hundred years after Leif Eriksson discovered Newfoundland, the explorer John Cabot reported cod so thick that you could practically catch them with your bare hands.  Cod became a food resource that would fund the first maritime colonial power, Britain.  Newfoundland’s shores were rife: giant oysters lined the beaches; streams were bursting with salmon and sturgeon.  Today, another five hundred years later, the Newfoundland seas and rivers lie empty.
By the 1950s cod fishing had taken on an entirely new meaning; the first commercial fish factories emerged: the factory-freezer-trawler.  This new breed of fishing vessel could haul up to 200 tons an hour, work seven days a week, and process fish on board ready for consumption.  By the late 60s, cod catch reached over 800,000 tons.  In 1977, following Iceland’s lead, Canada extended its territorial waters to 200 miles offshore and foreign factory trawlers, including the British, were no longer permitted access.
All was smooth sailing until 1988 when stock surveys revealed that cod was collapsing and that fishermen had been netting over 60 percent of the adult cod for many years.  In the early 1990s only around 60 percent of quotas were being filled.  By July 1992, the Canadian government finally closed the fishing banks in an attempt to allow the stock to recover.  It never has.  Over 40,000 Canadians lost their jobs.  It was one of the worst economic catastrophes to hit the Canadian nation.  Today there are signs that other species further down the fish food chain are also on the decline.
Now there is scientific evidence to show precisely how this may have happened in Canada, and how it could well be happening here in Iceland right under our noses.
An Emerging Pattern: First Canada, Now Iceland?
In a 2004 paper published in Nature, Canadian and Norwegian biologists expressed that fisheries-induced evolution lead the populations of North Atlantic cod to mature at far earlier ages and smaller sizes than previously known.  They suggested that genetic variation required for age resides within populations, and that the collapse of cod in Canada was due to early maturing in late maturing genotypes.  In other words, over-fishing forced fish to mature earlier in order to be able to spawn—with lower sustainable cod yields.  Fishing methods were effecting the genetic composition of the cod stock, dramatically reducing its fitness.
Árnason took the direction of this research one step further into the genotypes, and applied it to the fisheries in Iceland.  His findings appear dramatic.
Some years ago, using data trackers attached to the fish, MRI researchers discovered that there are two major cod genotypes.  These two genotypes carry a distinct variation of the gene, or allele, pantophysin I: AA, the shallow-water cod; and BB, the deep-water cod who only rise to the shallows to spawn. Árnason maintains it is AA that is rapidly evolving due to Icelandic shallow fishing methods.  Currently cod is decreasing in size on average one centimetre a year.  There is now only a 50% possibility of them becoming mature at all.  According to Árnason’s extensive research—with over 8000 specimens—evolutionary mutations in the genes of fish appear to be directly related to inadvertent habitat-specific fishing practices.
Is there a sustainable future for Icelandic Cod?
Iceland has often been cited as a model for sustainable fishing practices, setting quotas based on a scientific basis, and one of the few countries that meet British supermarket chains’ sustainability criteria. Why then, does Árnason’s science not meet with immediate concern?
Currently fish prices are down by 40%, demand from traditional markets such as Spain has been severely effected, the Icelandic fishing industry is deeply in debt (estimated at 400-500 billion krónur), and the new government is suggesting an entire overhaul of the quota process: quotas would no longer be assigned, but rented.  This, and Iceland’s fast-track membership into the EU, has fishermen deeply concerned.  Right now, no one needs to hear anything about rapid depletion of cod stocks.  Recent EC figures indicate that 90% of Europe’s fish species are being pulled out at an unsustainable rate.  Árnason’s research seems to indicate that the same could well apply to Icelandic cod.
Árnason has proposed large ocean reserves as a solution to the immediate threat, yet neither the Ministry of Fisheries nor the MRI feels any need for worry.
In a last-minute interview, Jóhann Sigurjónsson, Director General of the MRI said, ‘Although we consider all studies pertinent, our preliminary examination of Árnason’s findings is that they provide no evidence that the cod fishery is in danger of collapse. Árnason bases his conclusions on genetic methodology and questionable interpretation of fisheries data.  Presently there is another group of researchers looking into this more carefully, and naturally we are contacting Mr. Árnason to start a dialogue; but essentially we see this as a non-starter.’
Here’s a wild hypothesis:  Could it be that suggested lack of central controls that effected Iceland’s crippled banking sector may also be evident elsewhere?  So many have so much to lose.  For the moment, at any rate, it appears cod mutation, evolution, and genetics are issues that are not on anyone’s mind except one university professor.

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