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Iceland Offers U.S. Fishing Lessons

By John W. Porter Editorial Page Editor

Fishing's a big deal here in Maine and elsewhere in New England. But halfway across the Atlantic in Iceland, it's bigger still.

Fishing represents about 12 percent of the entire economy of Iceland. More significantly for a country that has to buy food and many other goods from abroad, 64 percent of Iceland's exports are in the form of some kind of fish.

So they're serious about fishing in Iceland, but there's an even better way to tell than the numbers. Iceland has moved to individual fishing quotas to regulate how fish are caught. Its experience serves as a beacon for regulators in the United States struggling to bring back stocks of cod and other commercially important fish.

ARNI M. MATHIESEN, minister of fisheries for Iceland, visited with the newspaper's editorial board last week and outlined a program for regulating fisheries that has cod stocks growing.

Individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, are beginning to get some attention in this country. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, for instance, is cosponsoring a bill with fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that would give local fishery management councils the ability experiment with IFQs.

What are IFQs? Under such a system, the fishery is divided among existing fishermen on a percentage basis. In Iceland the system got its start by looking back three years and awarding each boat a share of the fishery based on its historical catch. So let's say a boat gets a share of one-tenth of 1 percent of the fishery.

Each year the government would then set a maximum allowable catch for each fishery. Each fishing boat would then be given a share of that catch. So, if the maximum allowable catch for a species is 100,000 tons, our boat above would be allowed to fish for 100 tons of that species.

This system has a number of advantages over our current method of limiting fishing days for an entire fleet. For one thing, boat captains will find themselves under less pressure to fish when the weather's bad. If the season is artificially short, a boat can't easily afford to give up a day at sea. With IFQs, the boat can keep fishing until it hits its quota. No need, then, to go out to sea on a stormy day when the opportunity to catch just as many fish will be there in the weeks ahead.

Mathiesen says IFQs have also proven much more effective as a regulatory instrument. The total catch comes very close to the targets set by the government.

The minister also believes an IFQ system does something that would seem nearly impossible here in New England: It puts the fishermen, scientists and regulators on the same side of the conservation argument.

"With a permanent quota, they (the fishermen) have a long-term interest in the fishery," says Mathiesen. That only makes sense. When you own a piece of something, whether it's a business or a fishery, you're more likely to want to preserve its value for the long term.

Because the IFQs are transferable, the system has promoted a degree of consolidation and improved the quality of the fishing fleet in Iceland. Rights to fish are property that can be borrowed against, and investors are willing to spend money on new equipment if they know there's a guaranteed share of each year's catch backing their investment.

The best reason of all to adopt IFQs, though, is that they work. Iceland's cod landings have grown from around 160,000 metric tons in 1994-95 to an estimate of nearly 240,000 metric tons in 1999-2000.

There is a potential downside to IFQs. Because they are transferable, market share could get consolidated into the hands of a few large fishing fleets and those fleets could drive out small fishermen.

Fortunately, that's a problem that's easily addressed. In Iceland, a portion of each fishery is set aside for smaller boats. Those small-boat fishing rights cannot be sold to larger craft, though the rights held by larger companies can be transferred into the pool set aside for smaller operations.

The result in Iceland is a fishing fleet that is dominated at the top by efficient boats operated by large, publicly traded companies. Yet, enough of the catch is set aside for smaller vessels that those boats are doing better than they had under the effort-based system.

Similar safeguards for smaller fishermen could be built into an IFQ system here. In fact, if enough of the quota was set aside for smaller boats and owner-operators, it would have the effect of increasing that fleet.

Snowe's bill takes a definite go-slow approach and may, in fact, be too tentative. It doesn't, for example, permit quotas to be sold or leased. That undermines the value of the quotas as collateral and, therefore, would slow investment in the fleet.

Still, IFQs are a good idea and any movement in that direction should be welcomed by regulators, and most of all, by fishermen.

Published on Sunday, April 1, 2001
Page: 4C

2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.


   2008 Fred H. Hutchison. All Rights Reserved.

Edited on: May 19, 2006