Visit any supermarket in Iceland, and in the cold meats section you will invariably see fillets of smoked salmon and trout for sale. Some of it may have been caught in the wild, but a lot of it has been farmed. Fish farming is a relatively new concept in Iceland, but it’s an industry that is trying to grow, with the promise that it could bring hundreds of jobs to certain areas of Iceland. While the production would market itself by capitalising on the country’s image as a pristine natural paradise, it could in reality spark an ecological crisis, causing irreparable damage to one of the oldest parts of Iceland’s tourism industry.
To find out which direction the project may go, we need to learn from how aquaculture (as fish farming is more accurately referred to), has played out in other parts of the world. Through research and talking to those connected to this fishing technology, Grapevine has learned that the touted benefits of aquaculture may be outweighed by the environmental and financial consequences.
Big fish, little fish, swimming in the water
Salmon is farmed at the highest rate in Iceland, and it has been growing rapidly. Iceland farmed 292 tonnes of salmon in 2008. Four years later, the country was farming ten times that amount. In 2016, Iceland more than doubled that amount, producing about 8,000 tonnes.
Plans are currently in the works to increase the number to 10,000 tonnes, which could translate to anywhere from 100 to 230 new jobs in the Westfjords region.
Snorri Björn Sigurðsson, the Director of Development for the Icelandic Regional Development Institute, believes this expansion is crucial to the livelihood of people living in the Westfjords.
“Aquaculture has had the biggest effect on the southern Westfjords, because there has been the greatest decrease in jobs there, and with it a decrease in people,” he told us. “The decline has been tremendous, something around 30%, as would be the case if it were a war zone.”
Indeed, even the Westfjords’ largest municipality, Ísafjörður, has lost about 1,000 residents between 1998 and 2017, according to Statistics Iceland. While the Westfjords has also been consistently one of the most employed area of Iceland for many years, areas like the town Tálknafjörður showed an unemployment rate of 7.5% in June 2017, which is well above the national average of 1.9%. Other municipalities in the region have had similar rates of unemployment in the recent past, but have since recovered.
It only takes one
One need only read reports, stretching from Chile to America’s Pacific Northwest to Norway, to see that aquaculture is anything but a green industry. It only takes one fish escaping from a pen to have devastating impacts on local wild stocks. This damage can be done in the form of muddying the genetic balance of the stocks, or introducing diseases such as fish lice to the wild. Even Alaska, a state that has looked the other way when it comes to the environmental damage of oil drilling, has outright banned salmon farming. Why should it be any different for Iceland, a country that prides itself on the immaculate conditions of its natural environments?
“I think that of course people need to consider nature,” Snorri says. “That’s simple. We need to look into what effect this business, like any other business, has on nature. We can’t ruin the future where the environment is concerned. I believe that Icelanders in the Westfjords themselves are aware that we can’t go too far. They care about their region and their land, and they want to be able to continue living in the Westfjords. They look at aquaculture as an opportunity, and I believe that they can benefit from it without damaging the environment.”
Iceland does have a law on aquaculture, which entrusts the Environment Agency of Iceland, the Marine Research Institute and the Food and Veterinary Authority with the task of assessing the environmental impacts of aquaculture. However, remember that aquaculture is still relatively new to the country. These institutions might have trouble assessing what to look out for, and it’s with this and many other points that Jón Kaldal, a journalist who has been openly critical of the burgeoning enterprise, takes issue.
Jón Kaldal. Photo/subjects own
“The main issue isn’t the farming itself, but how it’s done,” says Jón. “And we have examples from history, from countries like Norway and Chile, that reveal that fish farming can in fact be very dangerous for nature. It’s a polluting industry. It can be very dangerous in particular for the local fish stocks.”
Statistically speaking, for every tonne of farmed fish, one is likely to escape. 130,000 tonnes to be farmed in Iceland could mean 130,000 escaped fish. The total wild stock of Icelandic salmon is 35-40,000, and each river has a localised supply. While Norway has banned so-called “open pens” for aquaculture, these are precisely the types of pens that the developers of aquaculture in Iceland intend to use.
“That’s why these [open pen] producers have turned their attention to Iceland,” Jón points out. “They see an opportunity to make fast money here in an environment that’s less strict than what they have to deal with back home. They want to do it in sea pens instead of closed circuit pens because it’s cheaper. It is half the cost to build and maintain closed circuit pens, and the technology is maybe not completely mature yet.”
Jón points out another area that is threatened by aquaculture: pole and fly fishing on rivers around the country—permission for which people pay large sums. This activity is arguably one of the oldest draws for tourism in Iceland, and is a significant source of income for some 1,500 people and their families.
“If farmed fish starts to show up in rivers, the interest of fly fishers goes away,” Jón emphasizes. “The main argument for allowing large scale fish farming is that local people need work. But at the same time, people who already have a substantial income in the countryside are in danger if others start farming fish at such a scale. It’s something that’s not really being discussed at all, but it has to be considered as part of the equation.”
More money, more problems
Furthermore, Jón doesn’t see the economic necessity of aquaculture for the country.
“We’re not fighting unemployment in Iceland right now,” he says. “We’re in good shape. There’s nothing that’s really demanding that we take chances with nature. Especially considering how other people are surviving in the Icelandic countryside. The lobbyists who are trying to get more fish farming going in Iceland can’t use job creation as the main argument. Their argument is that f you’re against fish farming, you’re against people in smaller towns having the right to survive. That’s blatant propaganda. Where jobs are needed, the farming industry simply has to use the best available methods, meaning no open sea pens.”
This, ultimately, is the choice that needs to be made: greater income with increased risk, as would be the case with more aquaculture; or less risk and a continuation of the status quo that fishing in Iceland has seen for generations.
“To me it’s very simple,” Jón says. “You should not gamble with nature, wildlife, and other people’s survival.”