Privatised and Downsized Cod - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Privatised and Downsized Cod

Privatised and Downsized Cod

Published July 27, 2007

Icelanders’ allotted cod quota was recently cut by a third, which is more than ever before since Iceland won the cod wars with Great Britain in the 1970s and expanded their territorial waters to 200 nautical miles. The cutback is also the biggest in cod fishing since the Icelandic Government legalised their quota system (the ITQ system) in 1985. That was done at the behest of biologists and marine biologists in order to protect the stock against over-fishing and to establish a self-sustainable fishing industry.

The cutbacks will primarily affect the third of the nation that lives by the island’s coasts. There the main industry consists of fishing, processing, and exporting fish products. The exceedingly high exchange rate of the Icelandic dwarf-Króna has the effect that the two-thirds of the nation living in the greater Reykjavík area do well by importing various consumer goods, while their export-industry cousins by the seaside face an increasingly grim reality. Capital dwellers take fancy in trailing the country’s highways with the world’s biggest trailers in tow to find out how the cod quota cutbacks are affecting the folks in the villages on the shoreline, those that earn their keep by means of export.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iceland is evolving into a sort of city-state, where a government that’s pointedly uninterested in any sort of regional development policy has stood by as two out of every three Icelanders now populate the same spot. How would the English or French like it if the population numbers of London or Paris reached 35–40 million? How would the Swedish government like if six of their nine million Swedes resided in Stockholm?

What’s worst is the ever-present doubt. How do the marine biologists know that cod fishing needs to be cut down so drastically, while haddock and herring fishing doesn’t? Aside from that, the quota-isation of the various species of fish results in as much cod and haddock being caught throughout the next fishing-year. Every fisherman and those who have studied nature know that no known fishing implement can catch one haddock for every cod. The nature of the ocean deems that for every haddock caught, you will catch three to four cod.

The honest shipowner is then left with a single choice. If he is allowed catch 100 tons of haddock, he must own at least 200 tons of cod quota. If that isn’t enough, he can either throw away the cod that exceeds the aforementioned ratio, or he can illegally unload the cod outside of the heavily regulated quota system. Can it be that a quota system that goes against nature will produce criminals?

Around 13 years ago, marine biologists, economists and other specialists sat down and made a definitive rule that would become the dominant paradigm for the government and the Marine Research Institute (MRI). It states that no more than 25% of the estimated stock of fish may be caught at a given time. For example, if marine biologists estimate the cod stock within Iceland’s territorial waters at one million tonnes, they allow 250,000 to be caught.

These same specialists claimed at the time that if their 25% rule were maintained, cod fishing would be self-sustainable and growing within the decade.

The exact opposite has happened. Marine biologists now demand that the standard to be lowered to 20% or less. Minister of Fisheries Einar Kr. Guðfinsson has nothing to reference their claims by, as the only accepted marine biology exists within a single foundation (the MRI) and is interwoven with the quota system and with the shipowners’ interests. The Minister of Fisheries didn’t dare to ignore the MRI’s advice, and thus cut the cod quota down from 190,000 tonnes per fishing-year to 130,000 tonnes.

Marine biologists have responded to criticism by saying that the government and fishermen have never followed their advice, and that at least one million tonnes of cod have been caught in excess of their advised numbers.

Is this believable? Isn’t it reminiscent of a meteorologist blaming car-owners for his failed five-day forecast?: That they emit so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with their cars that there’s no way to predict weather five days into the future. Twelve years ago, the MRI’s marine biologists clearly promised that Icelanders would reach the land of milk and honey within a decade by following their 25% rule.

Recently, Einar Oddur Kristjánsson, the Independence Party’s MP for the Westfjords, passed away suddenly. The North-Atlantic’s richest cod fishing grounds are located by the Westfjords. Kristjánsson had criticised the MRI for years. He believed that establishing competition within the MRI’s field of science – one so important for this nation of fishermen – was absolutely essential. The absolute last-word power of the MRI could establish the same kind of Lysenkoism abundant in the Soviet Union of yore. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet scientist who maintained a biological theory that, among other things, refused to acknowledge Mendelian genetics. The Soviet Communist Party made Lysenko’s science a state one, declaring his critics to be heretics and enemies of the people. Soviet biology didn’t recover from Lysenko-ism until the 1960s.

Illugi Gunnarsson, a young Independence Party MP with strong ties to the Westfjords, has backed up Kristjánsson’s criticism. He says – 15 years after the fact – that it was in hindsight unfortunate to make the only scientific institution in the field, the Marine Research Institute, into a sort of scientific beacon and at the same time the sole scientific justification for the quota system. This has had the effect that those who present objective criticisms of the theories and calculations of the MRI are at the same time stigmatised as opponents of the quota system.

The quota system is the legitimate offspring of libertarianism and ‘marketisation’ within the fishing industry, where the policy’s alpha and omega are handing rights to uncaught fish in the ocean directly to shipowners. Everybody knows the reasoning behind these actions. It has for long been preached to the world from the pulpit of the International Monetary Fund.

Indeed, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, Iceland’s foremost libertarian missionary (and Independence party ideologue), wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal published January 29, 2004, that Iceland’s success with the “libertarian experiment” far surpassed that of Pinochet’s Chile and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The only remaining task was to privatise Icelanders’ natural resources, such as energy and fish.

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