Iceland Iceland Iceland Iceland

Fisheries Iceland

Fisheries in numbers

Fisheries and fish processing are one of the main pillars of export activities in Iceland: in 2015, 42% of goods exports and roughly 22% of all export earnings from goods and services came from fisheries. The share of the marine sector in goods exports has fallen, though, from around 63% in 2000 to 42% in 2015. Despite this, the sector’s contribution to GDP has remained relatively constant in the past five years at 8-10%, down from 12% (10).

Iceland is the 12th largest fishing nation in the world, exporting nearly all its catch. The marine sector is still one of the main economic sectors and the backbone of export activities in Iceland although its relative importance has diminished over the past four decades. Marine products constituted 36.7% of all exports in 2008, the first time with less share than manufacturing products (1).

Shifts in the abundance of species

Of greatest concern is the potential effect of climate change on ocean circulation, because of the importance of the fishing industries to Iceland. Even small changes could substantially affect fish stocks in the seas around Iceland, though predicting future change is difficult. It is clear, however, that primary productivity (by photosynthetic algae), distribution of fish stocks and the location of spawning grounds all depend on currents and ocean temperature (2).

Positive consequences for fisheries

Since 1996 marked changes have been observed in the distribution of many fish species in response to ocean warming. Southern commercial species have extended farther north (e.g. haddock, monkfish, mackerel, blue whiting, saithe), a northern species is retreating (capelin), rare species and vagrants have been observed more frequently (e.g. greater fork beard, blue antimora, snake pipefish, sea lamprey, Ray’s bream, ocean sunfish), and 34 species, from both shelf and oceanic waters, have been recorded for the first time since 1996. In general, a moderate warming is likely to improve survival of larvae and juveniles of most southern species and thereby contribute to increased abundance of southern commercial stocks (10). 

It is unlikely that the response of commercial fish stocks to a warming of the marine environment around Iceland, similar to that of the 1920s and 1930s, will be the same in scope, magnitude, and speed as occurred then, mainly because most spawning fish are now fewer, younger and smaller than at that time. Nevertheless, a moderate warming is likely to improve survival of larvae and juveniles of most species and thereby contribute to increased abundance of commercial stocks in general. The magnitude of these changes will, however, be no less dependent on the success of future fisheries management aiming at recovery of all commercial species to former stock levels sizes in near future (1).

A general increase in North Atlantic and Arctic fisheries is likely, based on traditional species as well as the influx of more southerly species. This will affect East Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Northwest Russia, and adjacent seas (3).

From an economic point of view, climate change may impact the fishing industry in at least two ways: by altering the availability of fish stocks and by changing the market price of fish products. Although both may be initiated by climate change, the issue of fish stock availability is a more direct consequence of climate change (1).

The possible impact of climate change on fish stock availability may occur through changes in the size of commercial fish stocks, changes in their geographical distribution, and changes in their catch-ability. These changes, if they occur, will affect the availability of fish stocks for commercial harvesting. The impact is however uncertain. It may be negative, and so reduce the maximum sustainable economic yield from the fish stocks, or positive, and so increase the maximum sustainable economic yield from the fish stocks. Also, the impact may vary between fish stocks and regions (1).

Irrespectively, it is very likely that climate change will, at least temporarily, cause instability or fluctuations in harvesting possibilities while ecosystems adjusts to new conditions. The adjustment period may be long, and may even continue after the period of climate change has ended. The same applies to changes in economic value (1).

The main conclusion to be drawn is that the changes in fish stock availability that seem most likely to be induced by climate change over the next 50 to 100 years are unlikely to have a significant long-term impact on GDP in Iceland and, consequently, on social and political conditions in Iceland. Also, it appears that any impact, small as it may be, is more likely to be positive than negative (1).

Vulnerabilities - Migrating fish and political conflict 

The impacts of climate change can lead to conflict, but conflict not necessarily leads to violence. This is exemplified with the so-called ‘’mackerel case’’. Like many fish species mackerel is migrating into northern Atlantic waters, possibly as a response to ocean warming. This led to a rapid change in the distribution of the northeast Atlantic mackerel stock after 2007. This mackerel became more abundant in northern Atlantic waters, which in turn triggered an interstate conflict over the size and allocation of fishing quotas between the European Union (EU), Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands (4).

Situation before the mackerel shift

When mackerel stocks frequent the national waters of a nation, defined as a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), that nation is considered a “Coastal State” for that stock and has the right to harvest it in their EEZ. As so-called Coastal States, these countries are responsible for management of the stock. They negotiate the division of fishing resources (4).

Before the mackerel shift in 2007 the “main players” in the Coastal State meetings were the EU and Norway. These countries had been dealing with the sharing of the stock since 1999, had the biggest mackerel fishing fleet, and worked together on the scientific surveys that are used to advise the States on quota allocations. The Faroe Islands only played a minor role in the quota negotiations, and Iceland was not considered as a Coastal State (4).

The start of the conflict

The interstate conflict started after the mackerel moved northwards. The area of migration has progressively expanded as far as Icelandic and south Greenlandic waters in the west, and as far north as Spitzbergen (5), may be due to changes in food availability, increased water temperature, and/or increased stock size. Due to this change in distribution, Icelandic and Faroe fishers got better access to the stock and therefore wanted to secure their fishing rights. The Faroe Islands wanted to enlarge their mackerel quota, while Iceland wanted to become an accepted Coastal State member to secure their quota share (4).

The conflict between the EU/Norway and the Faroe Island dissolved in 2014 with a new management agreement, which allocated a substantially larger mackerel quota to the Faroe Islands (6). The conflict with Iceland still persisted in 2017.

So far, even though Iceland has become a Coastal State, it has not been involved in the Coastal States’ agreements on the total allowable catch (TAC) and quota allocations per country. The main reason for this failure is that a social and political dispute between the Coastal States developed which persists to this day. The conflict prevents collaboration with Iceland in a joint management plan and subsequently sustainable management of the stock. As a result, the Coastal States overfished the mackerel stock increasingly from 2007 onwards (4).

A permanent shift, or not?

The reasons behind the mackerel shift are not quite clear. It has been argued that this allows countries to select the scientific explanation that best serves their interests (7). Accepting that the shift is caused by climate change would confirm the permanence of the shift. This explanation is advantageous for Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but not for the EU and Norway because they would have to accept a (semi)permanent decline in their share of the TAC. Consequently, the latter countries prefer to consider the shift as temporary and the result of ‘normal’ environmental fluctuations.

According to the authors of this study the mackerel dispute is currently experiencing a (re)balancing of power between the various Coastal States due to their growing interdependence. Iceland and the Faroe Islands probably will claim larger shares as the mackerel shift continues, and new countries (like Greenland) may also demand access (4).

An example of future conflicts

The mackerel case is an empirical example of a process of global environmental change that will manifest itself more pronounced and widely in the decades to come. Marine scientists anticipate large-scale changes in distribution and productivity of marine organisms under the influence of ocean warming (9), which are expected to increase the potential for international conflict over marine resources, impeding effective and sustainable marine governance (9). 


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Iceland.

  1. Ministry for the Environment of Iceland (2010)
  3. ACIA (2004)
  4. Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  5. ICES Advisory Committee (2013); Nøttestad et al. (2014a), both in: Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  6. Government of the Faroe Islands (2014); Droesbeke (2015), both in: Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  7. Gänsbauer et al. (2016), in: Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  8. Cheung et al. (2010); Gattuso et al. (2015), both in: Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  9. Miller (2000), in: Spijkers and Boonstra (2017)
  10. Icelandic Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (2018)