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Fishes' impact on politics: An overview of the mackerel dispute

It has only been a few days since the newly-elected and eurosceptic Prime Minister of Iceland, Mr Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, stated that the mackerel dispute is an example of the importance of one country's sovereign rights.


The Prime Minister was prompted to say this because, during the last six months, some EU Member states mainly UK and Ireland, as well as Norway have expressed their open discontent with the fact that Iceland and Faroe Islands are both fishing mackerel way beyond the sustainable levels for the North Atlantic mackerel stock. These EU Member States have actually firmly supported that EU should impose economic sanctions to these two countries, thus causing the political tension between the two sides to increase further.

General background

Mackerel is a common type of fish that can be found in almost every sea either along the coast or in the ocean. The main mackerel stock is the North Atlantic one which comprises the sea area west of Spain and Ireland and the Northern Sea. Thus, the main countries fishing mackerel from this stock are UK (Scotland), Ireland, Norway and to a lesser extend Spain. From 1999, the North Atlantic mackerel stock is co-managed by the EU, Norway as well as the Faroe Islands in annual Coastal States meetings, where they decide their quota shares on fishing mackerel based on the Total Allowable Catches (TAC) which is provided annually by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). However, due to climate change and the increase of water temperature, mackerel has gradually emigrated in numbers in northern areas of the Icelandic Exclusive Economic Zone. Thus, since 2009 when Iceland's request to participate in these annual meetings was rejected by the Coastal States, it unilaterally declared its quota of the TAC irrespectively of the quota that are arranged between the Coastal States.

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One year later in 2010 Iceland was officially recognised as a Coastal State with regard to the mackerel fishery however since then the Coastal States haven't managed to reach an agreement on the shares of the TAC and consequently all the sides are unilaterally setting the quotas. The main result of this situation, apart from the political heat and the blockage of Icelandic vessels from British and Norwegian harbours, also poses an increasing concern over the sustainability of the mackerel stock. In other words: overfishing.

Current situation

In February 2013, the Coastal States (Norway and the EU representing notably Scotland and Ireland) announced that all of them are going to fish 90% of the mackerel's TAC leaving the rest 10% to Iceland, the Faroe Islands and to Russia. However, this was not enough for Icelandic authorities, fishing unions and vessels holders and they again unilaterally declared their quota to 15%. Consequently, for a fourth year in row, mackerel in the North Atlantic stock will be overfished due to lack of both sides to sit down at a table and to reach an agreement regarding their share. As a result, voices against Iceland became even stronger and some Member States put pressure on the EU to impose economic as well as trade sanctions on Iceland.

Iceland's position

Icelandic authorities claim that mackerel migration and its presence in numbers in Icelandic EEZ should be taken into consideration while the Coastal States are setting the quotas. However, in order to understand the deeper logic behind Iceland's position we should take into account the significant role of the fishing sector in Iceland's economy, particularly during the post-2008 crisis years. Iceland due to its geographic position is mainly a fishing nation with very long tradition in the field. Fishing and seafood processing accounts for more than 11% of the GDP (2012), while export of marine products accounted for 42.4% (out of the total export) in 2012 and it employs almost 6% of the total workforce which is an important source of livelihood in coastal isolated communities with limited employment opportunities away from the capital region. Last but not least, Iceland has a large number of fishing vessels (trawlers, decked and undecked vessels) the total number of which is growing steadily since 2008.


EU's position

EU member states and Norway both perceive Iceland as a newcomer in the fishery of mackerel in the North Atlantic stock which threatens the sustainability of the mackerel fishery –  to which many coastal communities have based their economy on. One example is some Scottish coastal communities of which the fishermen have protested several times during the last 3 years by blocking and preventing Icelandic vessels from landing in Scottish harbours. It goes without saying that it is mainly Scotland that has increased the pressure towards the EU in order to impose sanctions on Iceland such as to exclude the import and sale of Icelandic mackerel to the EU. From early 2013 the Commission has responded to the inability of reaching an agreement regarding the share of the catches by raising concerns over the sustainability of the North Atlantic mackerel stock. Continued fishing of mackerel beyond scientific suggestions will, in the near future, have catastrophic environmental as well as economic consequences for the coastal communities of the relevant countries. The EU Commissioner for Fisheries and Marine Policy, Ms Maria Damanaki, after an official visit to Reykjavik in early June 2013 claimed that sanctions are not off the table, particularly if Iceland continues to be unwilling to cooperate for reaching a common agreement for the sake of mackerel.

Mackerel dispute vis à vis EU accession negotiations

What makes the mackerel dispute a spicy story is Iceland's current status as an EU candidate country. Although after the last parliamentary elections that took place on 27th of April 2013 the new eurosceptic coalition government of Iceland has put on hold the accession negotiations. They will not continue until after a referendum, technically it remains a candidate country since they have not withdrawn their application. Thus, if sanctions are going to be imposed, it would be the first time that EU is doing so against a candidate state, making the relations between the two sides even more fragile. In addition, and under the prism of the significance of the fishery sector in Icelandic economy, it seems that there is a political consensus regarding the position that Iceland should have to the mackerel issue in contrast to the EU accession negotiations. It was the previous, pro EU government that unilaterally declared  the mackerel quota. In general, from the early beginning of the accession negotiations the chapter of fisheries was considered to be the most challenging one, not only because of the mackerel dispute but for a number of reasons which have to do mainly with Iceland's restrictions on foreign investment in fisheries, on the provision of services to foreign vessels as well as on the whale hunting that Iceland conducts during the summer period.

The next steps

The outcome of the mackerel dispute is still unclear. As the PM Gunnlaugsson put it, during his official visit in Brussels and his meeting with Barroso on 16th of July, "We may not have an army but we are ready to go to war for the fish". This reflects both the Icelandic future position on the issue as well as the national sensitivity that the Icelanders have for the fishery sector. After the same press conference, it seems that the Commission is acquiring a more balanced attitude, at least for the near future. It tries to avoid connecting the mackerel dispute with the issue of accession negotiations and to stay clear of any further political tensions. If it wasn't for the sustainability of the North Atlantic mackerel stock, the mackerel dispute would be just another example of the consequences that can emerge if the appropriate level of inter-state cooperation doesn't take place. However, the concerns about the stock and the potential economic consequences make cooperation among the Coastal States including Iceland more urgent than ever.

Christos Katsalis is a trainee in the Iceland Unit of the Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission

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