Icelanders are especially proud of two historical milestones concerning their fishing industry. First was the victorious Cod Wars that Icelanders fought with neighbouring countries—mainly the UK—between 1948 and 1976 over the control and size of the island’s fishing grounds, ultimately expanding them to cover a 200-nautical-mile radius around the country. Second was Icelanders’ creation of a sustainable fishing quota system in the 1980s to manage the newly acquired waters.
These two milestones were quite important for Icelanders because fish is historically their most important natural resource. By securing their dominance over the waters surrounding the island, Icelanders alone could benefit from fishing in this territory, without foreign trawlers plundering the island’s fishing grounds. The creation of the quota system was, among other things, meant to create a sustainable and profitable fishing system to avoid overfishing and damaging the island’s most valuable natural resource.
Many Icelanders will agree on two things about the aforementioned milestones: The Cod Wars played an important part in Iceland´s struggle for financial independence and later enrichment, and that the quota system was an attempt to safeguard the country´s economic stability by minimising the risk of overfishing. Icelanders became the sole beneficiaries of the wealth stemming from the fish caught in its 200-mile jurisdiction, and the quota system secured the continuing profitability of that resource by limiting its annual use.
The plundering of Icelandic trawlers
When considering the importance of these two historical milestones for Icelandic society, the current plundering of Icelandic trawlers in the waters off the coast of West Africa seems to be a clear example of double standards. These are some of richest fishing grounds on the planet, and they are still largely unexploited because most African countries do not possess capital or technology to fully use these resources to their own benefit. These rich fishing grounds thus remain ripe for exploitation by countries that possess the funds and technical skills to do so. In my position as news editor for local newspaper DV, I have lately been researching and writing about Icelandic trawlers’ activities in African waters and have learned a lot in the process.
For the last five years the Icelandic fishing company Samherji has engaged in large scale fishing of horse-mackerel, sardines and sardinella off the coast of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. Samherji is one of five Icelandic companies that has fished outside the coast of West-Africa in recent years, but it has by far the largest presence there. Currently, Iceland ranks sixteenth on the list of the world‘s wealthiest nations based on GDP per capita, compiled by The World Bank, while Morocco is ranked 117 and Mauritania 148. All of these countries are therefore much poorer than Iceland, one of the most affluent nations in the world.
Aiding and plundering
Samherji has also extended its scope to Namibia, which is better off than Morocco and Mauritania when considering GDP per capita, but worse in terms of wealth distribution, because it used to be a part of apartheid South Africa. Last February Samherji bought 30,000 tonnes of fishing quota in Namibia and has already caught more than 20,000 of it. Ironically, for the last decade, Iceland’s government has provided annual aid to Namibians which is meant to improve the nation’s economic situation. The most important part of the aid is Iceland participation in the founding of a maritime school in the town Walvis Bay, where students are being taught how to manage the nation’s fishing grounds in a sustainable and financially beneficial way.
Samherji owns seven massive factory trawlers in the Canary Islands that the company uses to fish off the coast of western Africa, each trawler equipped to catch between 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of fish. The trawlers are manned by hundreds of employees from Iceland, West Africa and Eastern Europe. When the trawlers are filled to capacity, the frozen fish is offloaded to smaller vessels from neighbouring countries, which take the cargo to shore, where it is sent to markets in places like Africa and Russia. The giant trawlers generally stay at sea for up two years at time, usually active during the entire duration.
Since 2007, Samherji has caught annually around 200,000 to 280,000 tonnes of fish, mainly horse mackerel, off the coast of these countries. Between 140 and 170 million euros of Samherji‘s annual 420 million euro revenue stems from their fishing in West African waters, which amounts to 30 to 40% of the company’s total revenue. In comparison, the company catches around 25,000 tonnes of fish in the waters around Iceland each year (a tenth of the African catch), strictly regulated by the quota system Icelanders are so proud of and many foreigners praise—the Economist recently called it “one of the world’s best” quota systems.
The wealth goes to Iceland
The beneficiaries of the wealth that Samherji creates by fishing in Africa are mainly the company’s stockholders and employees. Since 2007, when Samherji bought the trawlers in Africa, the company has paid out nearly 24 million $ in dividends.
The two biggest shareholders, CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson and Kristján Vilhelmsson, each received close to 8 million $ of that amount. Currently Þorsteinn Már’s holding company has assets worth 2.9 billion ISK, nearly 23 million dollars. Only a small percentage of the wealth from the natural resource stays in the African countries where the fish are caught.
This is analogous to the situation in Iceland prior to the Cod Wars, when foreign nations’ trawlers plundered Iceland’s fishing grounds and were their financial beneficiaries. Enraged, Icelanders fought for their rights and secured control over their fishing grounds. In the case of the Cod Wars, Icelanders generally consider justice to have been on their side.
In this context Icelandic historian, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, has said that the fishing of Icelandic trawlers in African waters is an example of “vulgar double standards.” “In our battle for the control over our fishing grounds our main argument was always that the coastal country should be the sole beneficiary of the national resources in its waters,” Guðni says.
Similarly, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has said in an interview on Icelandic television that Icelanders should assist West African nations to end the plundering and to create sustainable quota systems to defend their fishing grounds. “You are the fishing nation and you should speak out: Plundering and overfishing is not good for anyone in the end. If the plundering goes on like this there will be no fish left. We need an international institution to control the use of the world´s fishing stock. You managed to gain control over the use of your fishing grounds with your quota system but the nations in Africa haven’t been able to,” he remarked. Of course, Icelandic fishing companies have not done this—in fact Samherji has done quite the opposite.
However, there is a slight difference between the two cases, as Samherji has actually acquired permits to fish in African waters. This makes the discussion of the company’s operations less black and white in moral terms—Samherji buys permits to fish in the jurisdiction of these African countries from the governments in each of these states.
Relative to the profit that Samherji reaps from its fishing in Africa, the permits are cheap. But who actually gets the money that Samherji pays for the licences is unclear. As one of Samherji‘s employees in Africa, who did not want to be identified, explains. “People are not there against the will of the authorities. If that was the case then we wouldn’t be fishing there […] A government agent sells us the fishing permits and he is our contact. We just buy the permits from the governments. Who gets the money in the end is impossible to say.”
This is not the case in Namibia, where Samherji pays a certain amount for the fishing permits and can, in turn, catch as much as they want. There is no rule stating that they can fish a specific amount. This system is quite different from what we have in developed countries in western and northern Europe.
Disputed in the EU
Samherji also uses quota that the EU has purchased from the African countries. The EU’s contract with the government of Morocco has now expired, and it is currently trying to renew its contract with the government of Mauritania, which will expire this summer. The fishing of European trawlers in Africa was heavily criticised within the EU at the end of last year when the union decided not to renew the contract with Morocco.
Catalan Green MP for the European Parliament, Raül Romeva, fought against renewing the contract, arguing: “Most of the bilateral fisheries agreements the EU has concluded with developing countries are nothing more than coarse neo-colonialism—allowing the EU fishing fleet to pillage the African coast to the clear detriment of the local communities dependent on livelihood fishing.“ Raül also pointed out that there was evidence that some of the species in the waters in Morocco had been overfished in recent years.
Internal and external affairs
Meanwhile Samherji’s CEO, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, has responded to criticism of his company’s fishing in Morocco by saying: ‘‘We do not get caught up in the internal affairs of these countries.” Apart from this quote, Þorstein Már has not been willing to discuss Samherji‘s fishing in Africa in the Icelandic media.
In his answer, Þorsteinn Már specifically addresses the question whether Samherji would consider ending its fishing off the coast of Western Sahara, a disputed territory to the south of Morocco that the country annexed in the 1970s after Spain ended its colonial rule. Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara is not confirmed unanimously by the international community. This was the main reason why the European Union, with such MPs as Raül Romeva leading the way, did not renew its fishing contract with Morocco. They argue that it is not clear how the people in Western Sahara benefit from the Moroccan government‘s selling of fishing permits in the waters of Western Sahara.
So the problem with the autonomy of Western Sahara, which Þorsteinn has deemed internal to Morocco, is not considered internal by the EU, which has a different stance than Samherji about getting mixed up in “internal affairs.” In this case, of course, it is not in Samherji’s or Þorsteinn’s interest to think too much about the implications of the company’s fishing in these African countries. It is more beneficial for Samherji to turn a blind eye to the dilemmas stemming from the overfishing currently being pursued by Icelanders and other European nations in Africa—only Russia has more trawlers than Iceland fishing there according to a recent Greenpeace investigation. Certainly Samherji would protest the overfishing of foreign trawlers in the Icelandic fishing jurisdiction. That would be Samherji’s problem, because it would go against their interests. Africa, on the other hand, is not Samherji‘s problem, according to the words of Þorsteinn Már.
The left and right hand
The question that arises concerning this Icelandic company’s fishing practices is whether affluent nations in Europe are guilty of double-standards toward Africa. Every year, affluent European states donate millions of dollars in foreign aid to impoverished countries such as Namibia. They are poor in part because they haven’t been able to benefit from their national resources in the same way as wealthier nations in Europe. In some cases they might lack the technology or money to build the infrastructure that is necessary to create wealth from these resources—the trawlers Samherji uses to fish there are extremely expensive and effective fishing and processing machines. Europe’s foreign aid is meant to help some of the poorer nations in Africa to reach that same level.
At the same time, wealthy European nations are making millions of dollars by exploiting African countries’ natural resources while their governments donate money to them. For example, Iceland runs a whole state-funded organisation called The Icelandic International Development Agency, which has worked in Namibia for more than a decade. So we Europeans feed poor Africa with aid money with our left hand while draining their natural resources with our right hand. We do this catching their fish, possibly overfishing it and endangering African fishing stock in the process. Mercilessly exploiting African fishing grounds is definitely not the right path towards helping the continent become prosperous. But this is what Samherji, and many other European fishing companies, appear to be doing in Africa at the moment.