Forty years ago, Iceland saw its last real spell of hard times before the crash of 2008. In 1968 it wasn’t the financial geniuses who failed, but the herring. A fishery that had sustained communities all around Iceland, not to mention coastal regions all around the North Atlantic, came to an abrupt and unexpected halt.
The immediate result was unemployment and emigration, until Iceland’s fishermen instead turned to cod to keep themselves fishing.
It was the end of an era. Overfishing, that easily bandied phrase, is widely blamed for the herring’s collapse, but in hindsight, fishing was probably just one of several factors, that include a shift in sea temperatures, that was probably crucial to the herring’s disappearance.
But the herring came back, appearing in force in the 1990s and things appear to have come full circle as the Atlanto-Scandian herring stock is now showing signs of weakening again. Since then, a third major pelagic stock has risen and fallen. Blue whiting, which had been fished intermittently for years, suddenly became a serious fishery in the 1990s, and just as a management plan had finally been agreed, the stock went into a tailspin and fishing is now virtually zero.
As blue whiting have been weakening, mackerel, an unpredictable, migratory and predatory species that ranges over the North Atlantic, has seen a population explosion, extending its migration into Icelandic waters and beyond, sparking a bitter row between those nations whose fishermen rely heavily on the mackerel for their livelihoods.
THE MACKEREL CLUB: NO ICELANDS ALLOWED
Fishermen in Britain, Ireland, Norway, the Faeroes, Denmark, Holland and elsewhere have all been through the lean years when mackerel was scarce, putting up with increasingly tight quotas as the mackerel club of Norwegian, Faroese and EU governments bickered and argued, but maintained a fragile truce.
When massive volumes of mackerel suddenly appeared around Iceland, things began to come unstuck. The mackerel club had consistently refused to let Iceland join on the grounds that Icelandic waters were completely mackerel-free. That’s certainly not the case now—although history hints that the mackerel will eventually withdraw.
In practical terms, the agreements over this vital fishery have been shredded and burned. The sight of the Icelandic fleet shovelling up quota-free mackerel was, understandably, too much for the Faroese, not to mention that groundswell of dissatisfaction among Faroese fishermen at the low quotas while it was obvious that mackerel were increasingly abundant on their doorstep.
With Iceland enjoying a mackerel bonanza, Faroese fisheries minister Jacob Vestergaard stepped out of line and set autonomous quotas two years running that he feels reflect his country’s position.
DETERMINING THE PROBLEM
The reactions were predictable. EU and Norwegian fishermen who had lived with the pain of years of dwindling quotas are furious. They see newcomers set to cash in on the markets they have laboriously nurtured, and they see themselves being drastically undercut by newcomers, some of whom had never even seen a mackerel as recently as five years ago.
So where do the real problems lie? Fishing on the three main pelagic stocks of mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting are generally managed through brittle agreements between Norway, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and the European Union, who hold interminable meetings and all of which are subject to intense pressure from lobby groups in their own back yards. In Norway that’s Fiskebåt; in Iceland it’s LÍÚ, the influential fishing vessel owners’ association. In the EU those lobbying are the Producers’ Organisations (POs), as well as the green groups who have been quick off the mark in condemning Iceland and the Faeroes for endangering the mackerel stock. The media haven’t been far behind, with even the Sunday Times in London carrying a remarkably ill-informed article about the Icelandic and Faroese fleets being set to exterminate mackerel.
NOBODY WANTS TO SLAUGHTER THE GOLDEN GOOSE
Hold on a moment… Let’s think for a moment here. There are plenty of uncomplimentary things the greens can say about fishermen, but stupidity is one that simply doesn’t fit. It’s in nobody’s interest to wipe out mackerel—and this is a good place to point out that no marine species has ever been fished to extinction. The closest so far is probably bluefin tuna, but even the prized bluefin are still a fair way from joining the dodo.
No fishing company spends millions of Euros buying and equipping a ship and then building up markets to fish for two seasons. Fishermen want to come back to that same fishery at the same time every year and sell to the same customers they’ve been dealing with last year and every year before that.
So let’s kindly forget the whole idea of a set agenda to exterminate anything. Nobody wants to kill any golden geese, thanks very much.
THE UNHOLY TRIANGLE
To begin with, the failings lie with the unholy triangle of distrust between fishing, science and politics. Science tends to dismiss information from fishermen as unreliable. Fishermen tend to distrust science as being inaccurate and ultimately used against them. Politicians sway in the political breeze and if the wind gusts from the vote-friendly green camp, then science and fishing trail far behind.
With apologies to scientists who are genuinely doing their best, fishery science is still a highly imprecise discipline. Imagine trying to count the trees in a forest, but with trees that you can’t see that are also constantly moving. Whatever the scientists tell us, much marine science remains informed guesswork—and any fisherman will also tell you that mackerel are notoriously difficult to locate, plus the sheer rapidity of the mackerel’s westward expansion took everyone by surprise.
All of these problems are compounded by the failure of existing management mechanisms to cope with climatic change and natural fluctuations in marine stocks that are due to a whole swathe of partially understood factors, of which fishing is just one. This is coupled with a short-sighted political determination to deal with each stock as a separate entity rather than as part of a complex of species within a changing environment.
Managing migratory stocks that ignore borders set by humans on the basis of national flags leaves the whole business crippled by counter-productive baggage, virtually ensuring a tortuous process in reaching any kind of agreement that will always be a compromise that nobody is satisfied with.
But it’s all we have—until someone comes up with some kind of radical thinking that puts the politics and national interests second to the practicalities of management that can react to events as they happen, and not half a dozen years afterwards. I’m not holding my breath.