Environment, Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Getting Into a Stew over Mackerel

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Sep 13 2010 (IPS) - The British have a fascination for the rich, fatty meat of the mackerel, that summertime extravagance often served as pates and salads at fashionable pubs and restaurants. A far cry from the humble cod that is a staple of the more downmarket chip shops on the nation’s high streets.

But recently there are fears that a dispute over mackerel fishing may lead to a repeat of the cod wars with Iceland in the 1970s. According to reports in the British press, Iceland and the Faroe Islands have flouted agreed quotas, unilaterally awarding themselves a huge share of the mackerel stock in the north Atlantic.

Scottish fishers are especially furious because they rely heavily on mackerel, which last year brought in revenue of 135 million pounds, more than that of any other fish. The fishers, along with some politicians including Scottish member of the European Parliament (MEP) Struan Stevenson, are calling on the EU to impose trade sanctions against Iceland and the Faroes.

The Faroese boat Jupiter has already been prevented from offloading mackerel at Peterhead when Scottish fishers blockaded the port in early August. Norwegian ports also are refusing to handle Icelandic and Faroese fishing boats.

The cod wars had come after earlier unilateral moves by Iceland when it had expanded its fishing limits, initially from four nautical miles (7 km) to 12 nautical miles (22 km) in the 1950s; then to 50 miles (80 km), and finally to 200 miles (320 km) in the 1970s.

The British people have more recent grievances too against Iceland, an island similar in size to Britain but with a population of just 350,000. These include the volcano with an unpronounceable name which erupted in April, grounding flights in Europe. And the UK is a long way from collecting what it is owed after the collapse of Iceland’s banks which left the country in dire economic straits.

While younger people in UK may find it hard to recall the earlier fishing disputes, Iceland’s fishers are still buoyed by the earlier cod wars when Icelandic trawlers cut the nets and rammed the boats of UK rivals, forcing the Royal Navy to intervene.

“They celebrate the fact they think they won the cod war, to the extent that the Icelandic gunboat that actually opened fire on a British navy vessel is now a celebrated restaurant in Reykjavik harbour,” said Stevenson, who is the senior vice-president of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee.

Mackerel never used to be caught commercially in Iceland, as it was not found in sufficient numbers. But warming seas have meant that fish – including mackerel – are moving northwards to colder seas, entering Iceland.

Mackerel fishing is currently managed globally by negotiations between the coastal states of Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the EU, although at the meeting in March this year nothing concrete was decided. Faced with increasing stocks of mackerel, Iceland has been trying to attend the negotiation meetings, but with limited success.

“Iceland has been trying to attend since 1999. In 2008 we were allowed in as observers but consider that during the last two years we have been present as a validated state,” says Johann Gudmundsson, political advisor to the minister for fisheries and agriculture.

Icelandic authorities first set their own quota of 36,000 tonnes for mackerel in 2007. “We raised it to 112,000 tonnes in 2008, 116,000 tonnes in 2009, and 130,000 tonnes this year,” said Sigurdur Sverrison from the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners (LIU).

The Faroe Islands have set their own quota at 85,000 tonnes, again unilaterally.

Mackerel is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as being sustainable, and other countries are worried that this over-fishing by two countries might lead to quota cuts across the board.

As European Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said in a press release last month: “We will make every effort to come to an agreement with all states fishing on the north-eastern mackerel stock.” But she did not rule out further action, including trade sanctions.

However, a memo put out by the LIU states: “Iceland has every right to fish for mackerel within the Icelandic jurisdiction, just as Norway and the EU have the same right in their respective jurisdictions.”

“No one wants to reduce the amount of mackerel they are allowed to catch. Negotiations are necessary to determine what each country can accept,” says Sverrison.

The Marine Research Institute collaborates with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) to advise on the total catch for mackerel, which this year was estimated to be between 527,000 and 572,000 tonnes.

“We looked at eggs and distribution, and found that relative to last year, about three times more mackerel was found in Icelandic territorial waters,” says Thorsteinn Sigurdsson, Head of Marine Resources at the MRI.

“This means that in some other places there will be less mackerel around than usual,” he added.

An ICES Advisory Committee paper notes that mackerel was over-fished in 2007 and 2008. “It was also over-fished in 2009,” says Sigurdsson.

How much is the Atlantic quota for 2010? “It is difficult to say, but at a rough guess it would be something like 700,000 tonnes,” Sigurdsson told IPS.

Some people have suggested that Iceland wants to fish more mackerel because it is bankrupt, but Gudmundsson says this view “is just rubbish”.

The next meeting of the four coastal states is on Oct. 10-12, when the mackerel quotas for 2011 will be decided. However, in a bid to end the current dispute the EU will convene a meeting with representatives from Iceland and the Faroe Islands in September.

Time is running out though. “There are about 23,000-24,000 tonnes of mackerel still waiting to be caught,” says Audunn Agustsson, catch supervisor with Iceland’s Directorate of Fisheries.

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