Fishing row may erode Iceland's EU ambitions


Iceland will abandon plans to join the European Union unless it gets a satisfactory deal on fishing rights within its own 320km “economic zone”.

This is now the “most likely outcome” of discussions, according to Sigurgeir Thorgeirsson, the country’s chief negotiator in its long-running dispute with the EU and Norway over mackerel quotas in the north Atlantic.

With the EU threatening sanctions, such as a ban on imports of cod, herring, whiting, haddock and mackerel, and a general election due in April, the accession talks are currently suspended.

Iceland applied for membership in 2009 after its financial meltdown, but the latest polls show a majority of the country’s 320,000 people are no longer in favour now that the economy has picked up.

Agriculture and fisheries are the thorniest of 22 subject areas on which agreement has yet to be reached between Iceland and the European Commission. So far, only 11 “chapters” have been closed.

The fishing industry accounts for 40 per cent of the country’s exports, followed by aluminium.

The current mackerel row, with faint echoes of the 1970s “cod wars” between Britain and Iceland, has further jeopardised the chances of agreement being reached on favourable terms for EU membership.

It flared up in 2008 after Iceland unilaterally claimed the right to catch more than 100,000 tonnes of mackerel, arguing that there had been a “very dramatic” increase in their numbers due to climate change. “Mackerel is migrating into our waters in huge quantities”, Dr Thorgeirsson said. Last summer, some 1.5 million tonnes of mackerel consumed an estimated three million tonnes of food off Iceland.

Greedy guest

“We have quite a greedy guest in our coastal zone. A six-year-old mackerel arrives weighing 300g and its weight rises to 500g from eating krill, crustacea, herring and even sand eel,” he explained.

The mackerel invasion is even being blamed for a marked decline in the number of seabirds, including the much-loved puffin.

Thus, the government maintains catching mackerel in its coastal zone – even in numbers far above what scientists regard as sustainable – would help to restore the ecological balance.

Last year’s mackerel catch of 920,000 tonnes was 44 per cent higher than recommended.