Published May 12, 2015
Along with tourism, seafood is the biggest industry in Iceland. For many towns along the coast, it is the reason for their existence. The salaries paid to locals by seafood companies fuel the village economy. Therefore it is very important that seafood companies behave responsibly.
I certainly hope there’s no fishy business. I’d apologise for the pun, but I’m not sorry.
The particulars of how Icelandic seafood companies can behave irresponsibly comes down to the specifics of Icelandic fishing laws. Fishing is regulated according to a system called Individual Transferable Quota. The government sets an annual maximum for how many tons of a certain species can be caught. Companies can purchase a share in the total allowable catch which they retain from year to year.
If there’s something that never has any unintended consequences, it’s a simple system for the regulation of a complex industry.
The way the system was designed meant that people could make quite a lot of money from selling their fishing quota. Not as much as they would from actually catching and selling the fish. On the other hand they would not have to pay the costs of maintaining ships and running factories, or pay anyone their salary. Quite a few businesspeople closed their companies, sold the quota rights to businesses based elsewhere, and left their villages economically fucked.
Running a company that sustains a town is nothing compared to the joy of being rich enough to make a golden replica of your penis.
No need to be such a cynic, some of those businesspeople have vaginas. The issue is not that they are captains of indickustry, though there are some pricks among them. The point is that as an effect of how the system is designed, people who own quota rights have almost godlike power over coastal villages. Instead of controlling the rain and whether the harvest fails, they control which village gets fish. If no fish comes, people will have to move away.
A sensible system. If history has taught us anything, it’s that humans with power always behave responsibly.
To take one example, the village of Flateyri in the Westfjords had a fairly stable population of over 300 people. Then the owners of the local seafood company decided to sell their quota in 2007 and shut down the business. Now the population is down to about 200. Before the quota system was established, a seafood company’s assets were mainly its ships, factories and other equipment. These are difficult to sell. But a non-physical asset, like the percentage of the total amount of fishing in a year, is just a document that can be sold online. Under the quota system, you can destroy the economy of an Icelandic coastal village by sending an e-mail.
It can’t be that simple. You must at least need to send a few e-mails.
Okay, maybe even more than a few. And make formal contracts and so on. But it is still frighteningly easy for a village with a healthy economy and vibrant community to become financially devastated on the whim of a few individuals. Which is why Icelanders are both angry about the quota system and fearful of the people who own quota rights.
Will you now tell me about those cocktaints of industry?
There are too many to go through all of them now, so let me limit myself to Kristján Loftsson. He is the Chairman of HB Grandi, one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies. He and his company have been in the news lately for paying over 18 million euros to shareholders and increasing the compensation of the board of directors by a princely 33%. Meanwhile their employees were offered a measly 3.3% salary increase in contract negotiations.
The old “nyah nyah nyah, you can’t have what I have” negotiating tactic.
It did not so much throw fuel on the fire as throw TNT on the volcano. To further enrage everyone but himself, Kristján Loftsson went on television and defended the decision with all the tact of a Dickens villain. He even did a comic impression of an old union leader being perpetually ungrateful for his salary increase.
No one is as funny as a rich man making fun of working-class people.
Incidentally, Kristján Loftsson uses the profits he gets from HB Grandi to fund his other, not very profitable business: Hunting fin whales, an endangered species. If he were not already cartoonish enough, his hobby is the oceanic equivalent of industrial elephant killing. And because of the quota system, it is very easy for his company to cash out, shut down the factories, and give him enough money to buy a golden harpoon shaped like his penis. But bigger.