Iceland Offers U.S. Fishing Lessons
THE MAINE SUNDAY
By John W. Porter Editorial
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
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
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
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
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
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 Blethen Maine