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Fishing Lessons

BOSTON GLOBE April 7, 2001

NEW ENGLAND'S fishing community, which has been struggling with problems of dwindling stocks, catch quotas, even total bans in some localities, may have something to learn from Iceland and the frustrations of earning a living while dealing with restrictions.

That northern island nation between Greenland and Norway is proportionally far more dependent on fishing than New England but has made major strides in reaching sustainable catch levels that virtually guarantee its permanence as an economic resource.

Arni Mathiesen, Iceland's minister of fisheries, in Boston recently to speak at an international seafood show, expressed pride in his country's 25-year effort to achieve something near equilibrium between the need to harvest fish and the need to protect them well enough so they can produce a steady supply.

It has not been an easy process. Iceland had to establish sovereignty over its fish-rich waters, first by extending its territorial waters from the standard 3 miles to 4 miles, prior to international agreements leading to the 200-mile economic zone now accepted around the world.

Iceland had always been a major target for other fishing nations, and excluding them allowed the controls necessary to preserve the island's fisheries. With a population of only 280,000 living on an island of 39,769 square miles, the domestic market for fish is limited, so 97 percent of the catch is exported, mostly to Europe and the United States.

Enter controls. Iceland has established flexible limits on fishing, species by species, that are about 25 percent of the fishable stock per year, based on cooperation among scientists, the government, and the industry. These limits are raised or lowered based on constant sampling of stocks, coupled with brief periods of total bans to protect fish during spawning periods and to allow young stock to mature in nursery zones.

Icelanders currently take about 220,000 tons of fish a year cod, herring, haddock, halibut, prawn, and other species. Mathiesen and his colleagues are confident that this figure can be gradually increased to 350,000 tons an amount that might remain in place indefinitely based on current practices.*

This experience should be enormously encouraging to New England fishing interests, which have some of the same characteristics as Iceland's. Large and small operations coexist. Many of the species are the same. There are close ties between shore operations and fishing crews. A strong sense of independence lives alongside the restraints. Most important, says Mathiesen, is the interaction between the industry and the scientists in setting standards. There lies a lesson for everyone else who makes a living of going to sea for fish.

This story ran on page 10 of the Boston Globe on 4/7/2001.

2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

*The figures quoted in the editorial are for cod only. The total annual Icelandic catch is approximately 1.5 -2.0 million metric tons.


   2008 Fred H. Hutchison. All Rights Reserved.

Edited on: May 19, 2006