It’s hard enough to manage a fishery stock sustainably when the fish stay put. Once they start moving around, it’s almost impossible. That’s why the European Union and Iceland are heading into a mackerel war. It’s a foretaste of things to come, as warming oceans cause ocean fish to migrate to stay in their temperature comfort zones.
The conflict this time is quite different from the “cod wars” between Iceland and Britain in 1958 and in the early 1970s, as Iceland progressively extended its maritime boundaries to save its cod stocks from over-fishing by British trawlers. Back then, Icelanders were indisputably in the right. If they hadn’t acted decisively, their codfish would have gone the way of what was once the world’s richest cod fishery, on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
But Icelanders are not saints, and this time they are in the wrong. Mackerel, a smaller relative of tuna, is much in demand in Europe, and it has become a mainstay of the British, Dutch and Scandinavian fishing fleets.
The European countries know that the mackerel stock is being over-fished, and in recent years they have set quotas for the Total Allowable Catch. But last month the Marine Conservation Society removed mackerel from its “(safe) fish to eat” list anyway.
Bernadette Clarke, fisheries officer at the MCS, explained that “the stock has moved into Icelandic and Faeroese waters, probably following their prey of small fish, crustaceans and squid. As a result, both countries have begun to fish more mackerel...The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended.”
What has happened is that global warming caused most of the mackerel to move northwest to the cooler waters around Iceland in the summer — and Iceland began fishing them heavily. Moreover, it unilaterally decided its own “quota” without any agreement with the traditional big European players in the mackerel fishery.
Last year scientists advised a total catch of no more than 639,000 tonnes of mackerel by the EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Russia. However, about 932,000 tonnes was caught — 307,000 tonnes more than was safe. And nearly half of that excess was down to the Icelanders, who caught almost no mackerel 10 years ago.
Icelandic Industry Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson told the Scottish Sunday Express: “In the summer you can see mackerel jumping on the water at the harbour, which is something new for us....Our catch will be above the scientific advice but all I am willing to say is we will be as responsible as our situation allows us to be.”
Loosely translated, that means that Iceland wants a much bigger share of the Total Allowable Catch because it now has most of the mackerel in the summer, while the countries that traditionally fished the mackerel are fighting to hold on to their old quotas. “We will be as responsible as our situation allows us to be” could also be the slogan of the EU countries — and it isn’t responsible at all.
Maybe they’ll all see the light before they fish the mackerel out but the European Union is now muttering about sanctions and Icelanders don’t respond well to outside pressure. So there may not be a deal. Goodbye, mackerel.
The problem is not really greedy Icelanders or stubborn British. It is climate change. And we will see many more disputes like this as the warming proceeds and fish stocks dwindle.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.