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ICELAND: Fishing Dispute Casts a Wide Net

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Feb 1 2008 (IPS) - Iceland must review its fishing management system within six months and pay compensation to two fishermen who were unfairly discriminated against, the European Committee of Human Rights has said.

Iceland’s fishing management system for commercially important fish is based on quotas, which originally were derived from the average catch from a boat over a three-year reference period between 1980 and 1983. Boat operators were then allocated, free of charge, a quota for each fish species caught at that time.

Those who were new to fishing, or for some reason had not fished during the reference period, had to buy or lease quotas from those who had been allocated them originally.

Yet the first Article of the Icelandic Fisheries Management Act states: “The exploitable marine stocks of the Icelandic fishing banks are the common property of the Icelandic nation.”

“The distinction based on the activity during the reference period which initially, as a temporary measure, may have been a reasonable and objective criterion, became not only permanent with the adoption of the Act but transformed original rights to use and exploit a public property into individual property,” the Human Rights Committee ruled.

“Allocated quotas no longer used by their original holders can be sold or leased at market prices instead of reverting to the State for allocation to new quota holders in accordance with fair and equitable criteria. The State party has not shown that this particular design and modalities of implementation of the quota system meets the requirement of reasonableness.”

The Committee was established in 1976 under Article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Iceland is a signatory to this, and has obligated itself to respect the Committee’s opinions, although it is not legally required to do so under national law.

The two fishermen Orn Snaevar Sveinsson and Erlingur Sveinn Haraldsson had fished all their lives, but were not around during the reference period. They bought a boat without a quota in 1998 and repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to obtain a quota from the Icelandic authorities.

Eventually they managed to lease a quota at exorbitant prices, but when faced with bankruptcy they realised it was not economically feasible to continue doing this. So in 2001 they decided to fish without a quota, and informed the Minister of Fisheries that they intended to do so. They said the system was unfair and wanted to be charged so the case could be heard in court.

The fishermen returned with cod, plaice, haddock and catfish from an expedition – and were charged with fishing without a quota. They lost the case in the local District Court, and appealed to the Supreme Court, which confirmed the verdict of the District Court. So they took their plea to the Committee of Human Rights, claiming that they were victims of a violation of Article 26 of the ICCPR.

Both the Liberal Party and the Left Greens have Bills on reviewing the quota system, which were formulated before the Human Rights Committee opinion became an issue. The former says that anyone should be allowed to fish from April through September in small boats with hand-held fishing gear. Five years later, the results would be reviewed and a decision taken whether to set restrictions on how often or where someone may fish.

The latter calls for a complete overhaul of the fishing management system, to replace the current Act in 2010. “The current Act on fisheries management has not fulfilled its original intentions, which were to protect fishing populations, to promote the economic utilisation of these, to stabilise employment, and to strengthen rural communities,” says Atli Gislason, a Supreme Court lawyer and one of the authors of the Left-Green proposal.

The Left-Green and Liberal parties are both members of the opposition. “Proposals from the opposition rarely get taken up,” says Magnus Reynir Gudmundsson from the Liberal Party. But given the circumstances, some changes at least must happen.

Gislason says that all those who have read the Human Rights Committee opinion take it seriously and say that changes must be made. “The conclusion is clear, even if the argumentation is somewhat lacking.” He says that some people have cast doubts on the legality of the opinion precisely because the argumentation is not as good as it could be.

Gislason sees a wider picture. “Sveinsson and Haraldsson are trying to get the case taken up again by Iceland’s Supreme Court. If the Court agrees to this, in the light of the Human Rights Committee opinion they will be acquitted. And if they are acquitted, it is clear that the Icelandic fishing quota system will be in chaos.”

He adds: “Iceland has been promoting its fishing management system worldwide, although there are variations in how it has been taken up. The opinion will also affect these systems in some way. And potentially other quota systems too, such as emission quotas regarding climate change.”

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