While the history of fish farming in Iceland stretches back more than a century, the industry has until recently struggled to find its way forward. While still a relatively small-scale industry, it has seen some growth in production. Driven by investment from traditional fishing companies since the turn of the century, production has risen by 60% in recent years to 8,000 tonnes in 2014, of which more than 90% was Atlantic salmon and Arctic char.

Initially based on the on-rearing of salmonids for release into rivers, the industry gradually moved on to a larger-scale rearing for the consumer market. Reaching a pinnacle in the late 1980s, overinvestment coupled with mishaps and difficult market conditions resulted in most of the farms going bankrupt.

Following a subsequent combined effort of scientists and fish farmers in the 1990s, the domestic aquaculture industry began to lean towards new species like Atlantic halibut, turbot and Atlantic cod while maintaining its interest in the rearing of Atlantic salmon and Arctic char. Most recently, cod farming has been on the decline due to market conditions and the rearing of halibut has proved troublesome.

Fish farms

At the end of 2014 there were 53 registered fish farms in Iceland. Of those about 13 were producing juveniles, mostly for the on-rearing of salmonids while 7 were hatcheries only. A total of 22 land-based farms were in operation, of which many were small-scale producers and at the end of 2014 a total of 11 sea cage farms were operated. Five mussel farms are in operation, mostly still on an experimental basis.  

Selective breeding

The fish farmers' federation has defined selective breeding as the key to sustainable aquaculture in Iceland. Already in place for Atlantic salmon, Arctic char and Atlantic cod, selective breeding programmes enhance cost-efficiency while contributing to faster growth, higher resistance to diseases and a delay in sexual maturity.


In 2014, the export of aquaculture products amounted to 8,000 tonnes in volume and about ISK 8 billion (EUR 5.2 million) in value. The United States have been the biggest market for Icelandic aquaculture products and almost the entire Arctic char production is exported to the U.S.

Environmental impact assessment

With respect to environmental issues, the Icelandic Planning Agency is to be notified of plans for new fish farming operations where the annual production exceeds 200 tonnes and waste water is released back into the ocean. The respective production limit is 20 tonnes where waste water is released into freshwater. If serious concerns are raised, an environmental impact assessment is required before an operating licence for fish farming is granted.

Combating diseases in fish

In order to combat fish-related diseases in aquaculture, there is a monitoring programme in place. Dating from 1985, its primary purpose is to record and document the absence of exotic and other serious diseases time. The programme will subsequently form the basis for targeted initiatives from authorities for controlling diseases in farmed fish.

In order to preserve the healthy state of the marine environment, the sea cage rearing of salmonid species is prohibited in fjords and bays close to major salmon fishing rivers. This is done to avoid a possible genetic mixing and parasite infestation.


Conditions for aquaculture can be considered ideal in Iceland. The island is remote and its waters provide a relatively disease free environment. The outlook for the future of aquaculture is thus favourable.

Health and welfare

Good fish health is a prerequisite for ensuring a profitable aquaculture industry and quality products. Documented absence of specific pathogens is a precondition for Icelandic market access and for the export of aquaculture products.

How do fish diseases occur?

Since fish farming is a relatively new form of animal husbandry, new diseases will gradually be experienced in farmed fish populations. Variety of pathogens exist in wild fish populations along our coastline, rivers and lakes, generally without apparent adverse effects. When introduced into the fish farming environment the pathogens, however, more frequently cause serious diseases with major economic consequences. Combating such diseases represents a major challenge.

Combating diseases in fish

The Icelandic regulations for fish health and welfare include monitoring, control and combating relevant diseases by measures such as tie-ups, slaughtering, fallowing etc. of the locality as well as restrictions in respect of transport and the sale of fish etc. One important policy is the use of an official national monitoring programme for all farms, dating from year 1985. The purpose is to document the absence of exotic and other serious diseases. The surveillance covers the screening of salmonid brood fish to prevent the vertical transmission of certain pathogens. This helps to gain an important overview of diseases found at any given time and will subsequently form the basis for targeted public initiatives for controlling diseases in farmed fish.

Quality control

External quality control is the responsibility of Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority which operates under the direction of a Government-appointed Fish Disease Committee that advises Iceland's Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture on all fish disease issues.

The Fish Disease Laboratory is a National Reference Laboratory offering applied veterinary research, health control, and diagnostic services for aquatic animals. 

Environmental issues

A license is required to engage in aquaculture and sea ranching activities in Iceland. An aquaculture license is a set of rights and obligations for its holder. The main components refers to the right to produce specific species in a specific quantity at specific sites.

Environmental licenses

Licenses are issued by two governmental institutions, one agency under the Ministry for the Environment and the other under the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. The Icelandic Environmental Agency (IEA) is the state authority for the environmental licensing of aquaculture. The IEA issues licenses to large stations while local health inspection authorities issue licenses to small farms. A number of other state and communal authorities are involved in the process. The environmental license involves specific criteria regarding pollution, harmful chemicals, distribution of suspended solids and other local environmental issues.

Operating licenses

An operation license issued by the Directorate of Fisheries is required for all fish farming. The directorate collects data and evaluates on ecological factors and relevant disease connected factors to the farming. The operating license pertains to ecological, parasitological and genetic interactions. The operating license also contains specifications regarding the species being reared, total production allowed, monitoring and research and any precautionary conditions related to the escape of fish from cages and their recovery.

Environmental impact assessment

For all intensive fish farming, where the annual production is 200 tonnes or more and waste water empties into the ocean, or where annual production is 20 tonnes or more and waste water empties into freshwater the developer shall notify the Icelandic Planning Agency.  If there are fears of significant environmental effects, the Minister for the Environment can order an environmental impact assessment a prerequisite for an operating license.

Protection areas

In order to protect wild stocks from possible genetic pollution and parasite infestation, sea cages with salmonid species of reared origin are prohibited in fjords and bays close to major salmon rivers.   

Research and control agencies in aquaculture 

Selective breeding

Selective breeding is an important aspect of fish farming activities and that applies to Iceland as well. Genetically selected stocks will play an important role in development and ensure the best use of the environment and at the same time improve production cost-efficiency. In Iceland, selective breeding programmes exist for Atlantic salmon, Arctic char and Atlantic cod. The main objectives of selective breeding programmes today are:

  • Faster growth
  • Later sexual maturity
  • Higher resistance to diseases (higher survival)
  • Better flesh quality (lower fat-content, colour, texture etc.)

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)

The Atlantic salmon strain, which Stofnfiskur has been farming since 1991, is called Saga, a stock based on three Norwegian strains, Mowi, Bolak and Sunndalsøra. These formed the basis of the company's early breed selections. Fish produced from the Saga broodstock have proved to be significantly superior to those bred from the originally imported stocks. Compared with other strains, Saga progeny achieve faster growth rates, later sexual maturity and higher resistance to disease. Stofnfiskur is the only company in the world with the ability to produce salmon eggs on a year-round basis, an achievement based on dynamic breed selection and top quality research.

Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus)

The Hólar University College Arctic char breeding programme began in 1992, based on a few stocks from rivers and lakes in Iceland.  In 1998, Hólar University College and the Ministry of Agriculture concluded a special agreement pertaining to the breeding of Icelandic Arctic char. The agreement guarantees the breeding project operational capital and sets an administrative framework for it.

The aim of the breeding programme is to increase the profitability of farming char in Icelandic farming conditions by increasing growth rate, minimising early sexual maturation, maximising flesh quality and resistance against diseases.

As seen in the following figure (Thorvaldur Árnason 2015) there has been a substantial genetic progress in growth as measured by BLUP (best linear unbiased prediction) for weight from the start of the programme. On the other hand, the BLUP for sexual maturation has not changed significantly. In the figure D and L indicate two separate breeding lines in the programme.

Char farming in Iceland is primarily based on this breeding stock. The progress in the breeding programme is delivered to the farmers by supplying eyed eggs to them from December until July every year.

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)

The company Icecod was established in the year 2003 to oversee the cod breeding program in Iceland. Icecod's main shareholders are Stofnfiskur, The Marine Research Institute (MRI) and Hradfrystihusid-Gunnvör (HG). Juvenile production is located at the MRI aquaculture facility in Grindavík on the Reykjanes peninsula.  On-growing is located at the HG sea cage facility in Álftafjördur.  A base population for the selection programme was produced from approximately 350 viable families originating from 10 different spawning sites around Iceland. .  The program is currently producing 50 families per year from the third generation of selectively bred cod. The project has a support grant from the AVS (Added Value in Seafood) R&D fund.

Laws and regulations 

  • The Aquaculture Act no 71 entered into force 1 July 2008, replacing Act no 33/2002 on farming seawater fishes and Act no 57/2006 on farming freshwater fishes.
  • The act regulates all aquaculture activity in Iceland. Its main purpose is to promote the profitability and competitiveness of the aquaculture industry within the framework of sustainable development, contribute to added value and to strengthen the industry's activity around the country. 
  • The Aquaculture Act will establish the framework for future growth of the aquaculture industry through the responsible management of national interests.
  • Other important acts regulating the aquaculture industry are:
  • Act No. 60/2006 on protection against fish diseases
  • Act No. 106/2000 on Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Act No. 44/1999 on Nature Conservation
  • Act No. 55/1998 concerning treatment, production and distribution of marine products
  • Act No. 7/1998 on Environmental and Food Control
  • Act No. 73/1997 on Planning and Building
  • Act No. 93/1995 on Foodstuffs