Iceland, Whaling and Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management By Dr Peter Corkeron—Part I


Icelanders look to the sea, and always have. Fishing has always been important to

them, and they have a good record of attempting to ensure that their fisheries are

sustainable. As the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries stated in

a declaration on 17th

October 2006, “The Icelandic economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the

utilisation of living marine resources in the ocean around the country. The

sustainability of the utilisation is therefore of central importance for the long-term

well being of the Icelandic people. For this reason, Iceland places great emphasis on

effective management of fisheries and on scientific research on all the components of

the marine ecosystem. At a time when many fish stocks around the world are

declining, or even depleted, Iceland’s marine resources are generally in a healthy state,

because of this emphasis. The annual catch quotas for fishing and whaling are based

on recommendations by scientists, who regularly monitor the status of stocks, thus

ensuring that the activity is sustainable.”.

Fisheries account for approximately 40% of the value of Iceland’s exported

goods and exported services, and

roughly two-thirds of Iceland’s exported goods,

minus services. Fisheries and fish processing account for

little under 10% of Iceland’s

Gross Domestic Product (GDP), down from more than 15% in 1980. With a

population of just over

300,000 in 2007, Iceland is the world’s 178th largest nation,

but in 2002 it was still ranked as the world’s

13th largest fisheries exporter. So

Iceland’s economy is heavily dependent on its fisheries sector (although

“overwhelmingly dependent” seems stretching things).


Compared with fisheries in many other nations, and particularly compared to

the European Union’s poor record on fisheries management, Icelandic fisheries aren’t

badly managed. In the latest advice from ICES (the International Council for the

Exploration of the Sea), two

Icelandic stocks (cod and haddock) were rated as

“Overexploited” when assessing fishing mortality against historically highest yield,

and four stocks were classified as “Undefined”. Just after this advice was issued, the

quota for Icelandic cod was reduced substantially. This might not sound like a great

track record, but compare it to the

North Sea, where eight stocks were classed as

“Overexploited”, and five as “Undefined” or “Unknown”


Icelandic fisheries are confronted with environmental issues other than

overfishing. Changes in water flows through Denmark Strait (between eastern

Greenland and Iceland), are variable, and in recent years have seen warm, saltier

Atlantic water moving further north than in previous years. This appears to have

affected the movements of the capelin (

Mallotus villosus) population that occurs in

Icelandic waters

, making it difficult for Icelandic scientists to locate the capelin, and

estimate its abundance. This, in turn, has affected the advice that Icelandic scientists

can give on fishing quotas, resulting in smaller landings of Icelandic capelin in recent


The UK’s Marine Conservation Society

lauded a recent decision to cut

Icelandic cod (

Gadus morhua) quotas, noting that British consumers’ demand for

sustainable seafood was a motivation for the cuts. The cuts to cod quotas were a good

step towards sustainability, but it’s worth remembering that the size of the Icelandic

cod population (formally, the point estimate of its spawning stock biomass), is only


about one-third of what it was 50 years ago (

see Figure in the linked pdf). So,

despite room for improvement, it’s fair to say that Icelanders, as a nation, stand out

among Europeans in their enlightened attitudes towards fisheries management. Yet

the Ministry of Fisheries’ statement above came as part of a declaration on Iceland’s

return to commercial whaling.

In 2006, Icelanders restarted whaling commercially, for the first time since

1989. Seven fin whales (

Balaenoptera physalus) were killed from a commercial quota

of nine. A much larger quota was under consideration for the 2007/2008 fishing year.

Commercial whaling in Iceland started after a separate whaling program, conducted

under Article VIII of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling

(which I’ll refer to as Article VIII whaling, and commonly called “scientific whaling”)

was instituted in 2003, hunting northern minke whales (

B. acutorostrata). This

program finished this year (2007) with a total kill of 200 animals. A commercial hunt

of minke whales started in 2006/2007, with a quota of 30.

There’s an important distinction in technology between the Icelandic hunts for

fin and minke whales. Minkes can be killed by smaller vessels – fishing boats that

have a harpoon gun attached for part of the year. Fin whales are too large to be hunted

using these smaller vessels. The Icelandic hunt of fin whales in 2006 was carried out

from one of the old whaling catcher boats that have been a feature of the Reykjavik

harbour for several years now. But it appears that these whale catchers can’t be

converted to go fishing for most of the year, so to remain operational, they need to be

used hunting whales. In turn, this implies the need for a substantially larger quota of

these larger whales than the quota of nine fin whales issued for 2006/2007.


This suggests that Icelandic whalers were, and still might be, on the cusp of

restarting large-scale commercial whaling for larger baleen whales. There is a limited

market for fin whale meat in Iceland (there are, after all, only about 300,000

Icelanders), so the intention was to sell the meat to Japan. But at the time of writing

(early October 2007), negotiations over the sale of the meat have not been concluded,

so the meat remains in storage in Iceland.

On 24

th August 2007, the Icelandic Minster for Fisheries announced that new

fin whale quotas for the 2007/2008 fishing year (starting 1

st September) would not be

issued, as the current meat stockpile had not been sold. Whether the market’s invisible

hand has forced Icelanders to down their harpoons permanently remains unclear, as

are the roles of other factors, such as international opinion and dissent at home. The

statements made to date appear to leave room for whaling quotas to be issued if

contracts are signed in the near future, and commercial quotas for minke whales for

2007/2008 were issued.

However, there are calls from members of the Icelandic fishing community for

a whale hunt, regardless of the market situation, as they claim whales need culling.

Such calls have become more common in recent years from people in nations that

engage in marine mammal hunts.

Is there merit in these claims? This paper presents a critique of the case being

made by people in whaling nations generally, and by Icelanders in particular, for

culling whales in the name of “ecosystem-based fisheries management”. These calls

are contrasted with other initiatives in Iceland to use aspects of the ecosystem

approach in their fisheries management.


~ by narhvalur on November 15, 2011.

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