While much of the media at home and abroad has been paying attention to Iceland’s booming tourist industry, fishing remains a pillar of the country’s economy. At the heart of fishing in Iceland is the quota system. Ostensibly a means to prevent overfishing, the quota system has for a long time been one of the most contentious issues in the country, criticised for leading to the deaths of small villages and towns that relied on fishing (smaller companies will sometimes sell their quotas to larger ones, prompting jobs to move elsewhere), and also for directly benefitting the very people who write the laws about them.
More recently there’s been great debate about the mackerel quota. In addition to the usual criticisms of the fishing quota system in general, the mackerel bill has been made the subject of the particular criticism that it concentrates a great deal of the quota into the hands of a few. This criticism has spawned a petition, directed at President Ólafur Rangar Grímsson, that has already garnered the signatures of over 10% the population of Iceland, making it one of the most-supported petitions in Icelandic history.
Mackerel hasn’t always been a lucrative trade in Iceland, but in 2008 stocks began to boom in Icelandic waters with rising ocean temperatures. Iceland’s stocks are valued at around 600 million, and were part of an international dispute between Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands and the European Union over what constitutes a sustainable quota. In 2010, an uneasy truce was reached between these parties, with Iceland’s total mackerel quota amounting to some 640,000 tonnes.
With so much money at stake, it is unsurprising that private interests I would want as much of a share as they can get away with. After a bill on the mackerel quota was introduced to parliament in April, journalists almost immediately began connecting the dots. It came to light that the wife of Progressive Party MP Jóhann Pálsson owns a fishing company that stands to receive a mackerel quota worth 50 million ISK if the bill is passed. Jóhann sits on the Industrial Affairs Committee, which is partially responsible for crafting the legislation. At the same time, Davíð Freyr Jónsson, who is also a member of the Progressive Party and sits on that party’s Fishing Committee, is the owner of a boat that stands to triple its quota if the same bill is passed. That quota is valued at about 200 million ISK.
A populist movement
Shortly after these connections were brought to light, an online petition called Þjóðareign (“National Resource”) was started with the relatively straightforward aim of preventing the bill from being signed into law:
“We, the undersigned, call on the President of Iceland to refer to a referendum any laws that parliament adopts where fishing resources are allocated for more than one year, while no provision for public ownership of resources has been set in the Constitution and the people have not been guaranteed full charge for their use.”
At the time of this writing, more than 50,000 people—or more than 10% of the country—have signed the petition, barely a month after its creation. The Grapevine spoke with Andri Sigurðsson, one of the organisers of the petition, as well as Þórir Hrafnsson, Press and Information Officer from the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, which created the legislation, to get to the heart of where the disconnect lies.
“Everything is wrong with it”
When asked what he finds wrong with the mackerel bill, Andri was to the point.
“Everything is wrong with it,” he told us. “It goes against our fishing regulations that dictate that quotas should not be issued for more than one year at a time. This is where the current line is drawn in the sand.”
Here Andri refers to Article 3 of the Law on Fisheries (116/2006), which does limit the total allowable catch (TAC) for an individual species to 12 months. It’s the TAC which is subsequently split up and allocated to individuals and companies as individual transferable quotas (ITQ). The current mackerel bill would extend that period to six years. Why is this a problem? Mostly because, its critics argue, this gives those who will control the ITQs for mackerel a much longer period of time for controlling the fish.
“Those who want a new progressive system want to sell the quotas on an open market while the incumbents want more control, and to own the quotas for longer periods of time, without paying a full fee for using the resource,” Andri explains. “This new law needs to be scrapped and re-written. Our fisheries’ policies need to use open market solutions where Icelanders are guaranteed their share of the famous pie everyone loves talking about. Because right now, the gluttonous bastards who hold the fishing rights want to have the whole pie for themselves, crumbs and all.”
“Feelings are strong”
Þórir acknowledges the lack of any current solutions everyone can agree on, but stressed that the bill is meant to be a temporary arrangement.
“The system has been under revision for some time without an acceptable consensus having been found,” the ministry told us. “Therefore, the Minister stressed the importance of a temporary quota setting for the mackerel, i.e. for six years and roll over, while the overall revision has not been completed. Would not say we were surprised to get opposition, as the matter is sensitive and the feelings are strong.”
Andri does indeed feel strongly about the issue. His point of view is that Iceland’s fish, being a natural and national resource, should belong first and foremost to the people.
“I think personally that most people have given up on reaching a compromise with the fishing industry,” he told us. “They will never back down, and Icelanders want them to pay more to the community. That’s why any solution has to focus on the needs of society first and foremost; not of wealthy quota owners who were handed our resources for free in the first place.”
It isn’t just the length of the quota that is being criticised. Torbjorn Trondsen, a professor at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science at the University of Tromso, Norway, wrote directly to Independence Party MP and chairperson of the Industrial Affairs Committee Jón Gunnarsson on the matter, filing a written objection to the legislation that has since been made a matter of public record. Torbjorn criticised the bill for “grandfathering” the quota rather than putting it up for open auction.
“Fish quotas are harvesting contracts of the fish resource owned by the Icelandic people,” he wrote. “Public auctioning of such contracts are by far the most efficient system to maximize the added value of the fish resources for the Icelandic people as owners. A good auction organizes a fair competition between the fishing companies and secures quota access for smaller innovative fishing firms.”
In the hands of the President
As strong as support for the petition to put the mackerel quota up for public referendum may be, whether or not that happens rests solely with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. The president has referred legislation to referendum before—in particular, the wildly unpopular Icesave legislation, which ended up defeated in the ensuing referendum.
However, in 2013, a petition of some 35,000 signatures calling on the president to refuse to sign a law that lowered taxes for fishing corporations went ignored, with the president telling reporters at the time that “tax issues should not be a matter of public referendum.” So what are the chances he’ll abide over 50,000 signatures?
“No one knows what that guy will pull out of his hat,” Andri says. “But since this new law is a major change to the current fishery policies, we think that he has no other choice but to send it to a referendum. That is, if he is consistent with his own words in the past. He has said in interviews that this issue is a good topic to send to a referendum so we will just have to hope for the best.”
It is true that during the last presidential elections, the president said that “it is difficult to think of a bigger subject which would be natural to put up for national referendum” than the fishing quota system.
That, however, was in 2012, and politicians are prone to change their minds as easily as anyone else. For now, it seems the only thing anyone can agree on is that no one can agree how Iceland’s mackerel quota system ought to be handled.