Accessibility links

Breaking News

Icelandic Policy Combats Declining Fish Populations

A faint winter sun casts an orange glow on the small fishing vessel 'Erik the Red.' She is one of many boats resting in the harbor of Reykjavik -- a city of 170,000 and the world's northernmost capital.

Hafsteinn Thorsteinsson runs the motor … but says he has nowhere to go. “I can only fish in the summer and have to work inland in the winter. This is the case for a lot of us. Now I build houses but I prefer to be fishing.”

Mr. Thorsteinsson used to bring his catch of cod and haddock to markets year-round. But Iceland's decade and a half old quota system limits the number of creatures he can take from the North Sea. The policy is designed to preserve collapsing fish populations -- a phenomenon in all the world's oceans. Quota systems have been in place in Iceland and other countries including New Zealand, and parts of the United States.

Sylvia Earle, a renowned marine biologist and author, warns the world's oceans are in crisis. “There is a vast new demand for the products that can be extracted from ocean wildlife. Meanwhile the value of these creatures, for reasons beyond pounds of meat and barrels of oil, is not being accounted for. The health of the ocean itself is at risk because of the depletion of the creatures that are being taken from the sea and the habitat destruction.”

Studies around the globe reveal a staggering drop in marine wildlife, especially populations of

big fish, including tuna, swordfish, cod, and shark that have lost an estimated 90 percent of their populations. Increasing demand for delicacies like shark fin soup and curative cod oil drive industrial fishing companies to employ sonars, echo sounders and sea-mapping software to hunt their prey as never before.

The estimated total stock of fish in the North Sea has dropped from 26 million tons to 10 million in just over a century. This includes cod -- one of Iceland's primary fish. In response, the Icelandic government decided to limit the amount of fish that can be taken from the sea. Illugi Gunnarsson, an advisor to the foreign minister, says the quotas are similar to assigning land rights to farmers. “When the quota system started, everyone agreed that there were far too many fishermen, far too many boats. The quota system introduces property rights into our industry where there were none before.”

Mr. Gunnarsson says the sense of ownership brought by quotas give fishermen a higher stake in the health of fish stocks. “Quota owners have put a great amount of emphasis that the ministry of fisheries should follow the advice of the scientists. It is in their own interests because this is based on properties, and it is their property that is being depleted if there is overfishing. So they don't want to fish more than the scientists recommend.”

Although Mr. Gunnarsson admits quotas alone will not raise fish populations to normal levels, Iceland has experienced some success. The cod population has increased in the last two years since the total allowable catch was reduced by the quota system.

But marine biologist Sylvia Earle remains skeptical. “What is not working today is the large-scale taking of sea animals to satisfy a greatly increased number of human beings.”

Mrs. Earle believes too many people view marine wildlife as mere commodities. This is inherently shortsighted, she says. “I am talking about what fish are worth alive to humankind, versus what they are worth dead as something to east or sell. There is something about the value of these wild creatures in maintaining the health of the ocean itself, the deep sea systems that provide the basic functioning of oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption -- what makes this planet work for us.”

Sylvia Earle and other analysts say few people think about how their seafood has been captured when they sit down for dinner at home or in a restaurant. As awareness increases, technology also benefits those who monitor the movements of the world's fishing fleets. Satellites and the Internet aid in tracking what every boat is doing when it goes about its business in the great waters. And as more governments look for effective ways to address overfishing, Iceland might just serve as an example to follow.