Icelandic ambassador appeals for talks over mackerel row

Diplomat asks why his country and Faroes are being ‘singled out’

Iceland's ambassador to Britain and Ireland, Benedikt Jonsson, has called for "negotiations" rather than a "war of words" with the EU, following the decision by EU fisheries ministers to initiate trade sanctions over the mackerel fishing dispute.

"Trade sanctions will make the situation more difficult," Mr Jonsson told The Irish Times. He questioned why Iceland and the Faroe Islands were being "singled out" for criticism by Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney and EU counterparts, when Russian vessels were also fishing the stock.

Fishing was a “fundamental pillar” of Iceland’s economy, Mr Jonsson said, representing about 27 per cent of gross domestic product. This was not to diminish the importance of fishing to coastal communities in Ireland, he said.

The decision to initiate trade sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands over the level of mackerel being caught by their fleets was taken by EU maritime affairs commissioner Maria Damanaki on Monday night – a move welcomed by Mr Coveney, who said he had been seeking the sanctions for more than 12 months.


Ms Damanaki has said she will decide what sanctions to impose by the end of the month.

Ireland North West MEP Pat the Cope Gallagher said Ms Damanaki needed to impose sanctions quickly, and ensure they covered more than Icelandic mackerel landings in EU ports.

The EU imports 89 per cent of its whitefish, with Iceland being a major supplier, and British fish processors are strongly opposed to any trade restrictions.

However, Mr Coveney said he had the support of Britain, France and Spain. The €1 billion northeast Atlantic mackerel fishery is worth more than €600 million to the EU, with a value of more than €125 million to Ireland as this State’s most lucrative stock.

Mr Jonsson said the reality was that mackerel had migrated in larger numbers to Icelandic waters since 2006, yet the EU, Norway and the Faroes, which are parties to coastal states’ agreement on sharing the stock, had not recognised Iceland’s entitlement until March 2010.

The lack of agreement is resulting in the stock being exploited at greater than 145 per cent of its recommended level – a situation known as “Olympic fishing”, where fleets compete at the expense of the stock’s survival.

'Everyone overfishing'
Mr Jonsson said "everyone is overfishing", but that Iceland was taking 22.7 per cent of the recommended catch, while the EU and Norway combined were taking 90.3 per cent of recommended limits.

“Is it really fair to expect other parties, like Iceland, the Faroes and Russia, to settle for less?” he said.

“Russia’s catch for 2013 is estimated to be 12.6 per cent of the scientific recommendation, and where does this fit in EU’s criteria for sanctions?” he asked.

Iceland also believed that sanctions would violate World Trade Organisation regulations and protocol 9 of the European Economic Area agreement.

Dr Leonie Dransfeld of the Marine Institute explained that the mackerel stock had always spawned off the southwest Irish coast, and migrated up via Scotland and the Shetland Islands to western Norway and the North Sea.

Since 2006, the migration route has swung northwest into Icelandic waters.

According to Dr Maurice Clarke, also of the Marine Institute, research has shown that the stock is large but is being fished too intensively.

“It is essential that the total international catch is brought back to within the levels advised by scientists,” he said.

“The likely consequences of continuing with the over-catch will be that every country will suffer in the long term.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times