Streamlined and fast swimming, around a foot long, Scomber scombrus, the Atlantic mackerel, travel in shoals, undertaking extensive journeys if needed: by tagging, researchers have observed specimens travelling up to 1,200 km in thirteen days. They overwinter in deep waters, and “stop feeding almost completely” meanwhile, but move upwards and closer to shore come spring. On a sunny day, mackerel give glitter and shine to the surface of the sea. When they do feed, they feed on smaller fish and zooplankton, mainly in the afternoon, and are, in turn, eaten by their larger brethren. This is all pretty generic, though. Science brings us no closer to what it feels like to actually be a mackerel, forcing us to stay focused on what we can observe: their afterlife.
Greasy, smelly, hot
Mackerel is an oily fish. Fat and moist. Rich in omega 3. Healthy but not “delicately flavoured” according to culinary experts. Uncured, it spoils easily. And stinks. Ancient Romans made it into fish sauce. The Japanese preserve their mackerel with salt and vinegar, then serve it as sushi. In France, the fish is traditionally pickled. In 1903, a 22 year old Pablo Picasso sketched and signed a provocative picture of mackerel. Googling will do. Before the invention of canning, the English ate the fish fresh. Or rather, unpreserved. Ideally, on the day it was caught. Otherwise … call it an acquired taste.
Since 2007, anglers in Wales have reported the disappearance of mackerel by their shores. Around the same time, mackerel showed up in Icelandic waters. A lot of mackerel. According to Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture “it is now mass migrating into the Icelandic EEZ due to the current warm oceanic conditions”. Researchers have claimed that the Atlantic ocean might currently serve as a bumper on global warming, swallowing up heat, thereby stalling atmospheric effects, buying us all at least ten more years of relatively moderate catastrophes. Well done, ocean. However, heat diverted into the deep seas brings about a set of consequences of its own, one of which, according to the model, would be this surprise asset for Icelandic fishing industrialists. At around 150 thousand tons a year, Iceland’s self-allocated quota is just about 15% of Europe’s total annual catch. In a global economy where deep down inside, any existing entity is actually a domino brick, that’s not an insignificant amount of fish.
Here’s where things get interesting: almost half of Iceland’s mackerel catch is exported to Russia. Iceland’s general population became aware of this last week, as Russia added Iceland to their list of countries to be sanctioned in return for Europe’s sanctions against Russia, implemented in response to the latter’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Since Iceland openly supported the sanctions against Russia from the start, this turn of events did not come as a surprise to anyone. Except, apparently, to Iceland’s fishing industry. And its ministers. And their newspapers.
War and fish
Some mackerel was caught around Iceland during a warm decade or two before the mid-20th century. In 1944, the country was transformed from kingdom to republic by substituting the word president for king in its constitution. Iceland’s king, before that, was the king of Denmark, a country conveniently occupied by German forces during WWII, while Iceland, officially neutral throughout the war, was occupied by the US. As soon as Iceland declared independence, mackerel disappeared from its territorial waters and remained elsewhere throughout the Cold and Cod Wars.
While the 20th century only saw one Cold War and two World Wars it witnessed three Cod Wars. Unilaterally expanding its exclusive fishing zone from four to twelve nautical miles from shore (1958), then to fifty miles (1972) and finally an impressive 200 miles (1975), Iceland brought on repeated confrontations against the UK, whose fishermen had relied on some of the claimed fishing grounds for centuries. These confrontations are known as the Cod Wars. In total, they led to one casualty. Strategically important throughout the Cold War, during each of these conflicts, Iceland cunningly threatened to leave NATO and close down the US military base in Keflavík if the UK would not succumb to its demands. Each time, the UK backed out and Iceland won.
Once the Republic’s exclusive authority over extensive fishing grounds had thereby been ensured, a rapid process of enclosure began, de facto privatisation of the seas, by means of fishing quotas allocated by the State. The legal and institutional arrangement, commonly referred to simply as the Quota System, is considered gloriously rational by the Right since it “unleashed” a lot of capital, and seen as devastatingly irrational by the Left for pretty much the same reason.
The Declaration of irrelevance
The US military establishment closed down its facilities in Iceland in 2006. Two years later, at the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US Treasury offered currency arrangements to assist other Nordic countries who might need some: Denmark, Sweden and Finland —but not Iceland. The announcement could easily be interpreted as the end of an era: we, the superpower, used to cover your minuscule, defenceless country’s back, but from now on we won’t. A single week following the US Treasury’s declaration saw Iceland’s three major banks collapse, one after the other.
Central Bank manager at the time, Davíð Oddsson, had in his former post as Prime Minister decided on Iceland’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then visited President Bush in Washington and sung him Happy Birthday in front of TV cameras, just to ensure that the US military would maintain its presence in Iceland. In all likelihood offended by the USA’s evident indifference to his plight, during the dramatic week in which the banks fell and splattered, Davíð announced that Russia would provide the country with the currency it needed to stay standing. His buddy since high school, Prime Minister Geir Haarde, explained: “We have not received the support that we sought from our friends. In such a situation we must look for new friends.” The Russians retracted the announcement that same day. On live TV that night, the Central Bank manager stated that Vladimir Putin had personally condoned negotiations with Iceland, which would go on, regardless of any prior misunderstanding.
Swarms of transubstantiation
Any Russian loans failed to materialise. What did materialise in 2008, however, was mackerel. As opposed to the IMF, the UK, the EU and the rest of the world’s most powerful abbreviations, mackerel arrived as the country’s first post-crisis undemanding saviour. Industry leaders, ever close to the Independence Party, correctly foresaw that fishing quotas would eventually be allocated based on previous fishing experience, and established de facto ownership of the resource by catching as much as they could before any regulation intervened. In 2008, Icelandic vessels caught some 112 thousand tons of it, up from four thousand tons in 2006 and absolutely nothing for decades before that. Since 2009 the catch has been stabilised at around 150 thousand tons annually.
For the fishing industry, this sudden arrival of a species was like winning a lottery without having bought a ticket: while everyone else suffered, the 2008 collapse of the króna already made export industries wildly lucrative —and then more money came swimming along. If the country’s collective imagination were more religious than purely monetary, authorities would already have erected a statue to commemorate the mackerel’s ultimate sacrifice, depicting schools of fish enthusiastically entangling themselves in Icelandic nets to ease the pain of a deflated currency —much like tourists would proceed to do a few years on.
The disputable existence of the rest of the world
In 2014, Russia invades Ukraine. The the EU and the USA respond with economic sanctions, symbolically supported by Iceland, among others. Russia retaliates with sanctions on the West. Last Thursday, then, this August, Russia declared that its reciprocal sanctions would also apply to Iceland and its export products. All of a sudden, as actual ships are actually denied access to actual harbours, Icelanders become aware that half of all their mackerel has until now been exported to Russia. Which means that somewhere someone now doesn’t know what to do with around 200 million pieces of fish that start to stink faster than it takes any minister to book a ticket home from her vacation resort.
According to government representatives, fish exports to Russia total at around €130 million annually. Kolbeinn Árnason, manager of Fisheries Iceland, claims that these estimates neglect products shipped onwards through other countries’ harbours, and that the actual annual value of the goods at stake runs closer to €200 million, ca. ten percent of Iceland’s total fish exports. Asked whether the industry should not have prepared for the largely foreseeable sanctions, Kolbeinn replies that they have: while exports to EU member states are hindered by customs, we currently sell mackerel to twenty West-African states, he says, adding that no country, however, is willing to pay prices as high as Russia.
What good is gaining free lunch if you lose a client?
To summarise: Iceland’s largest and most prosperous companies base their business on a state-sanctioned collective monopoly on scavenging the seas for goods left drifting by nature or grace —a free lunch if there ever was one. They have had some good clients but just lost one. The hunter-gatherer industrialists thereby foresee less gains than they expected. Holy Scomber scombrus! How would a respectful entrepreneur respond to losing a client? Something of the sort must have occured before? Where’s the the free market user’s manual?
The day after Russia’s announcement, the former Prime Minister and Central Bank manager mentioned above, in his current post as Morgunblaðið’s chief editor, wrote an editorial to mock Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson’s support of the sanctions against Russia. Fishing industry royalty owns and runs the paper, to which the current Independence Party’s leadership remains mostly loyal. The day after the editorial announced the paper’s policy, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson accordingly stated that Iceland’s support of the sanctions must be reviewed in the light of Russia’s response.
Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi responded by declaring Iceland’s foreign policy not for sale and that it would not be altered by Russia’s sanctions. The Treasury might, however, he added, consider funding reparations to the fisheries.
The future of traditional cuisine
This Tuesday, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson met with Russia’s ambassador, Anton Vasiliev. According to a news release, the two spoke of “the importance to ascertain the continuation of prosperous exchange” between the countries, and the countries’ common “will to preserve the longstanding, mutual business interests, regardless of temporary disputes on other topics”. The brief statement’s final sentence: “Historical struggles throughout the Cold War, Iceland’s participation in NATO and a defence agreement with the USA did not, for decades, obstruct Icelanders and Russians in striving to preserve the solid business relations between the countries.”
So much is true, in any case: the number of Russian manufactured Ladas driving around in Iceland, a NATO member-state, during the Cold War, was pretty astonishing. The Czech Skoda was common, too, as was the legendary East-German Trabant: playing the geopolitical scene to its best advantage, Iceland retained seemingly strong business relations with members of the Soviet bloc.
While fighting escalates in Ukraine, Iceland harbours a diverse set of principled policies to be exploited for leverage. What sort of leverage is currently available this opportunistic little narcissist of a tribe remains unclear. Traditional net-rattling may not work this time.
There must be some kind of way out of here. Speaking of which, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has not been heard or seen through these events. He must have taken off somewhere to deliberate. There’s too much confusion.
The safest bet, in these uncertain times? 2016 will see the menus of evermore Reykjavík restaurants offering mackerel dishes, no doubt “based on local tradition”.
—Debates On Tuesday #26