Icelanders stand firm against EU on fishing mackerel

Workers at Peterhead fish market sell the latest catch Peterhead, Scotland. Trends show that the North Seas fish stocks are in decline including cod mackerel, and haddock other fish such as bluefin tuna have disappeared completely.

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Kai Ryssdal: There's talk of a trade war brewing in the North Atlantic. The topic at hand is fish -- mackerel, specifically. Iceland has been catching boatloads of 'em, far beyond what the European Union believes is good for the conservation of the species. The EU's been demanding Iceland cut its quota for weeks now. Today, enough was enough. The EU simply said Icelandic mackerel boats can't pull into any EU ports of call.

Marketplace's Stephen Beard has more on the mackerel wars.


Stephen Beard: Down on its luck -- with its banking industry bust -- Iceland's had one recent stroke of good fortune. Millions of mackerel have chosen to swim north into the country's territorial waters.

Dragana Ignjatovic is with IHS Global Insight.

Dragana Ignjatovic: Iceland is getting more mackerel. It's as simple as that. So they feel they should be able to fish it, given that it's in their waters.

And they have been fishing it, landing some 143,000 tons last year. EU demands that Iceland ease up on the mackerel have touched a raw nerve. Icelanders see this almost as a matter of their own survival.

Siggy Sverrisson: This is about standing firm and not giving in.

Spokesman for Iceland's fishing industry, Siggy Sverrisson.

Sverrisson: We do feel that we do have the right to fish for a fair share of the mackerel.

But what's a fair share of mackerel for Iceland? Opinions vary. The EU reckons about 22,000 tons this year. Iceland wants 160,000. Magnus Arni Skulason is with Rekjavic Economics.

Magnus Arni Skulason: Fish is very important. We need the foreign reserves, foreign exchange to be able to repay foreign creditors.

Fish accounts for 60 percent of Iceland's exports. It is, says Magnus, the country's most valuable asset by far. And he bridles at EU allegations of overfishing.

Skulason: If we would overfish, we would basically be taking the principal out of the bank, reducing the principal, the capital that is in the sea.

If overall mackerel stocks decline, he says, that's because of overfishing in EU waters. The escalating war over mackerel won't enhance Iceland's chances of joining the European Union. The bid for membership was launched in the wake of Iceland's financial meltdown.

Jon Danielsson: After the economy crashed two-and-a-half years ago, many people thought Iceland would be better off belonging to the EU.

Jon Danielsson of the London School Economics. He says now Europe's debt crisis is making many Icelanders think again.

Jon Danielsson: As the situation in Iceland has recovered quite significantly since the crash, while the EU economic situation has become steadily worse, the EU is seen as a lot less attractive opportunity than it was at the time.

He says the mackerel spat has raised fresh fears about joining the EU and allowing Brussels to take control of Iceland's most precious resource, its waters. Many Icelanders feel that as a small nation they'd be bullied by larger member states. Many now seem to feel Iceland would be better off as a big fish in its own small pond.

This is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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