Gwynne Dyer: Mackerel wars in the North Atlantic

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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 in order 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 in order to save its cod stocks from overfishing 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 the world’s richest cod fishery, on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Newfoundland lost its cod because it was no longer an independent country, and the cod fishery ranked pretty low on the Canadian government’s list of priorities. Ottawa wasn’t willing to pick a fight with other countries over codfish when it had so many other trade issues on the table, from wheat exports to airline landing rights.

Whereas the cod fishery was the biggest industry in Iceland, and so it fought hard to defend it: British trawlers’ nets were cut by Icelandic Coast Guard vessels, there were ramming incidents, and there was much angry rhetoric. In the end Iceland won, as it deserved to—and it still has its cod stocks. (A president of Iceland once told me privately that she believed Newfoundland would still have its codfish too if it had been free to fight for them.)

But Icelanders are not saints, and this time they are in the wrong. The issue is the Atlantic mackerel, whose total catch went from about 150,000 tonnes in the early 1950s to over a million tonnes in 1975, and then fell back to around 700,000 tonnes by 2010. A smaller relative of the tuna, its flesh is much in demand in Europe, and it has become a mainstay of the British, Dutch, and Scandinavian fishing fleets.

They know that the mackerel stock is being overfished, and in recent years they have set quotas for the Total Allowable Catch. This required complex negotiations between the European Union (representing the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands) and Norway (which is not an EU member). The talks were successful, 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 than was previously agreed. The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries.”

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 since they were now in Icelandic waters, Iceland began fishing them heavily. It set a quota, of course, but it is not an EU member, and this unilaterally decided quota was in addition to the one agreed on by the EU and the Norwegians.

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 were caught—307,000 tonnes more than was safe. And almost 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. The numbers coming to our waters are quite incredible and they double their weight when they are here....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 digging their heels in and trying 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 EU is now muttering about sanctions, and Icelanders don’t respond well to outside pressure. Everybody involved understands what’s at stake here, but they are all answerable to their own fishing industries at home, not to international law (there is none on this issue) or to some wise and impartial arbitrator. 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, some of them with a much higher risk of violent confrontation, as the warming proceeds and fish stocks dwindle.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Guy Stewart, Reykjavík
Then again, it may be a bargaining chip. Iceland has to do a lot of bargaining nowadays. Having just escaped (or have they?) having to compensate Britain and Holland for the Icesave scandal, the matter may not be quite so urgent. However, negotiations for entering the European Union are on the horizon now. Hm!
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Holy Mackerel ! WhAt next?
We're running out of options and time.

The signs are all around us in the air water, land and sea.

Man is consuming every life giving element on Earth faster than Earth can provide or regenerate.

The only thing that is infinite now, is man's stupidity.

You've got to decide the time is now.

Man knows the mackerel is over-fished regardless of the location and has the audacity to justify continuing over-fishing by claiming ?We will be as responsible as our situation allows us to be?.

Wtf happened to ..."Don't blow up the world, don't kill all the flowers. Today this is your world, tomorrow it's ours.
Leave us pure water and forest uncut.
Think of tomorrow, leave something for us..."

I feel sorry for any child under 20 right now. There's no hope for any sustainable future on Earth with such a greedy self-centered attitude and ways of living. Already there's 7 billion people on earth and man continues to consume everything available to him the fastest while simultaneously making every element on earth toxic with pollution.

Why isn't over-fishing considered a crime against nature? Why isn't global warming considered an accessory to murder on a global scale? The facts and statistics have been known for decades. Why aren't the people who make these decisions held responsible and accountable to sustain and protect earth?

What about all the other creatures in the circle of life that depend on the sea for their survival? They don't have a choice to shop at the local grocery store because the ocean IS their grocery store.

Man is interfering with the natural rhythms of the circle of life by over-fishing, and man IS causing global warming which in turn affects every living being on earth.

When will man wake the hell up and realize that by wiping out hundreds of species full force ahead without taking any responsibility or accountability nor any consideration or compensation to nature and give back to nature rather than take!? Man's free ride mentality has got to die.
It is stupid to continue down this road we've been down before when we know there are alternatives to committing suicide on a global scale-- when all it takes is the will to change.

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Jeremy
Thatnk you, Mr. Dyer, for pointing out the impact climate change is having on our ecosystem and the conflicts that will arise because of it. You are correct on both...we are out of time and man's stupidity. We have been just talking about the environment for the past 30-40 years already.
I doubt we will change course now. Sorry, children, we are only concerned for the here and now.
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Jezza
As far as I'm aware Newfoundland was never an independent country. It was a self-governing dominion but that is not quite the same thing. Even so, I don't think it would have had the money to pick a fight over cod stocks at the time anyway or that it would have been a priority for the UK, at the time, either. The Canadian government should have acted on behalf of Newfoundland and saved the cod stocks but supposing it would have been different otherwise seems to miss something.
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