It’s been a few years now since mackerel showed up around Iceland in enough numbers to start appearing on barbecues. It’s only been a very few years since there was enough to see a commercial fishery develop, but that’s what has happened—and an unholy row with Iceland’s neighbours has been brewing since the first big catches were landed by the Icelandic fleet.
Unlike the cod and haddock that are the firm favourites of Icelandic consumers, mackerel are a pelagic species that live high in the water and are caught with nets or hooks, but are landed in bulk by specialised vessels built to do just that.
Mackerel are also a predatory, highly migratory species that range over large areas of the North Atlantic, ignoring the arbitrary borders drawn by humans to migrate happily over long distances.
The amounts of money involved aren’t small. The mackerel fishery is worth an estimated €¤600 million every year and has been the subject of an uneasy alliance between Norway, the Faeroe Islands and the European Union—representing mainly fishermen from Britain, Ireland, Holland and Denmark. Last year a 640.000 tonne quota was set, marginally in excess of the scientific advice, but which was not thought to jeopardise the stock.
Iceland is the joker
But Iceland is the joker in the pack. Warmer sea temperatures and a healthy mackerel stock have prompted this unpredictable species to migrate into Icelandic waters. This was greeted initially by Iceland’s pelagic fishermen as a minor irritation that got in the way of herring fishing—but as the volumes of mackerel grew, this has become a fishery all to itself, on top of the rigidly enforced quotas that the established players have.
Last year more than 100.000 tonnes of these little fast-swimming diamonds were landed in Iceland, much of which was processed into fishmeal. This year the Icelandic government set itself a 130.000 tonne mackerel limit, prompting outrage from the other coastal states.
The ‘mackerel club’ responds
This is where the politics take over. The established ‘mackerel club’ of Norway, the Faeroe Islands and the EU protest that Iceland is acting irresponsibly by fishing heavily on this stock and taking the total catch way beyond scientific advice. Iceland responds that it has a right to exploit a resource in national territory. Cue stalemate.
Iceland had for years been knocking at the mackerel club’s door and asking to join. For all of those years the response had been that with no mackerel resources of its own, Iceland wasn’t going to get a slice of the cake.
With mackerel now present inside Iceland’s EEZ, things have changed dramatically. Negotiations have been taking place at intervals but progress has been zero. History shows that this stuff doesn’t happen fast. When the Atlanto-Scandian herring reappeared in the 1990s, it took several years to engineer an uneasy truce that nobody has been entirely happy with. Negotiations over the blue whiting fishery that ranges from west of Ireland to north of the Faeroes lasted for more than a decade before another uneasy peace was reached.
There are rounds of recrimination and bitter accusations that swing back and forth. Iceland claims to have been excluded illegally from the mackerel club. Norway points to its own long track record of fishing mackerel since this was a marginal species in the 1970s, and there are justifiable, understandable standpoints on all sides.
Will the Faeroese follow Iceland’s lead?
Don’t imagine that all is peace and harmony inside the mackerel club. A squabble between the EU and Norway last year was resolved after several months, much to Norway’s advantage, EU fishermen would claim. Faeroese fishermen have seen a massive mackerel fishery taking place next door, while they are limited by agreements to a modest fishery.
The Faeroese fisheries minister has come under increasing pressure to follow Iceland’s lead and set a Faeroese quota of a similar size, thereby stepping out of the longstanding agreement with the other coastal states—a move that would be regarded as the clearest treachery by Norway and the EU.
Pressure on the Faeroese government is coming from those who don’t have access to mackerel, but see it as a resource that could be exploited, as well as seeing strong and hungry mackerel as a threat to juvenile groundfish. The idea of a large, autonomous Faeroese quota also opens the possibility of quota swaps with other countries, notably with Russia for access to more Barents Sea cod.
On the other hand, the established Faeroese operators are strongly against leaving the agreement and this is where another factor comes into play. Mackerel are present in Icelandic and Faeroese waters during the summer. But summer mackerel are worth a lot less than during the winter when the meat is firmer and has a fat content that’s just what the lucrative Japanese market wants.
Winter is where the serious money is, when these valuable fish turn into swimming gold nuggets—and that’s when mackerel are firmly back in EU and Norwegian waters.
The established Faeroese operators foresee the loss of the markets they have worked for years to build up alongside their Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, Danish and Dutch counterparts, who have already been through the pain as quotas have been cut, dubious landings brought to an end and shares of the total quota endlessly argued over. The sight of the Icelandic fleet shovelling up mackerel for fishmeal or for Eastern European markets is painful to fishermen who see their own vessels tied up for more than half of the year.
Then what happens?
So what’s the likely outcome? There won’t be an agreement that includes Iceland this year, but negotiations are scheduled to discuss 2011. The Faeroese position is crucial. If they walk away from the existing agreements, then everything will blow wide open. Such a step could bring the wrath of the EU down on the islands, which could stand to lose much more in other ways than it could gain from 100.000 tonnes of mackerel.
Experience shows that negotiations take years, so a conclusion next year is far from likely. All of those involved have interests at stake and all of the governments concerned are lobbied hard by their fishing sectors. There’s also the issue of national pride—nobody is prepared to back down. It would be politically unacceptable to give Iceland a larger share of the fishery than the 5% that the Faeroes have as a longstanding member of the mackerel club and even this would entail the EU and Norway making painful sacrifices. Yet Iceland’s demands are so high as to be simply not taken seriously. The question needs to be asked: does Iceland genuinely want an agreement? The Norwegian response is that Iceland’s strategy is to build up as large a track record as possible and is therefore in no hurry to reach a settlement.
There is also the possibility that with heavy fishing in the coming years, the stock could diminish and would no longer migrate as far as Iceland, leaving Iceland with no mackerel and with no agreements, no access to it in other waters.
If all the claims—all justifiable in one way or another—are added together, the total is close to 180% of the fishery, with nobody prepared to back down. There are no easy answers, and if/when an agreement is reached, the only thing that is certain is that nobody will come away satisfied from the negotiating table.