Pelagic fishes

Pelagic fishes

Ever since the 1950s, pelagic species have been the defining factor in overall catch figures in Icelandic fisheries. Characterized by great fluctuations as these stocks are migratory, herring (Clupea harengus), capelin (Mallotus villosus), ocean redfish (Sebastes mentella), blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) and mackerel (Scomber scombrus) have all had a major impact on Iceland's economy.

Now almost exclusively carried out by vessels operating purse seines or pelagic trawls, pelagic fisheries are seasonal. As stocks are highly migratory, fishing can extend to vast areas as the shoals continue their journey.

The traditional harvesting of the three herring stocks in Icelandic waters (Iceland summer spawning herring, Icelandic spring spawning herring and the Atlanto-Scandian herring) reached a pinnacle in the mid-1960s followed by a complete collapse. Two of the three have since recovered, the Icelandic summer spawning herring and the Atlanto-Scandian stocks.

Capelin, previously not harvested, gained importance in the 1970s. Fisheries for ocean redfish, blue whiting and later mackerel have made contributions of great significance to pelagic fisheries and the local economy.

A few other pelagic species are found in Icelandic waters. Horse mackerel is a frequent visitor in the EEZ while the blue-fin tuna has been harvested with some success far off the south coast. The pearlside, the great silver smelt, the sand eel and the orange roughy are pelagic species that have been harvested, albeit somewhat sporadically.

Atlantic herring 

The herring is the most abundant fish in the North Atlantic. Commonly sized 30 to 40 cm it reaches an age of up to 25. Split into many sub-stocks based on where and when spawning takes place, the Atlanto-Scandian (also known as Norwegian spring spawning herring) is the largest one.

While the Atlanto-Scandian herring spends significant time in Icelandic waters between spawning periods off the Norwegian coastline, the Icelandic summer spawning herring never leaves domestic waters. The third stock, yet to recover following its collapse, is the Icelandic spring spawning herring.

Reaching a peak in 1966, the Icelandic share of the herring catch was over 600,000 tonnes, primarily from the Atlanto-Scandian stock. Stern measures were implemented following the stock's collapse, resulting in an annual catch of 20,000 tonnes or less until the mid-1980s when they were increased again as the stock recovered.

In 2013 the total catch from the Icelandic summer spawning herring stock amounted to 72,000 tonnes while vessels landed 91,000 tonnes from the Atlanto-Scandian stock, the majority of which was caught within the Icelandic EEZ.


Probably one of the most important feed fish in the ecosystem, the capelin is a small pelagic fish, 15 to 18 cm in length with a short life cycle. Once mature enough for reproduction, the capelin condenses into large schools. Migrating clockwise around Iceland to the spawning grounds to the south and southwest, the capelin preyed upon by numerous larger species. Once spawning is over all the males die and most of the females.

While the herring stocks were recovering, the capelin was specifically targeted and fast became the most important pelagic species. Caught in huge quantities, in many years the capelin matched or even surpassed the catch of all other species combined, the peak of which was in 1997 when the total catch was a little short of 1.6 million tonnes. No capelin fishery at all was permitted in 2009 but in 2013 the catch was some 550,000 tonnes.

Atlantic mackerel 

A known species in Icelandic waters for over a century the mackerel was primarily a low level by-catch in Icelandic fisheries. However, a regular mackerel invasion into the Icelandic EEZ in search of food for since around 2005 has catapulted the species in terms of commercial significance for Iceland. The total catch of 153,000 tonnes in 2013 accounted for 10% of the overall catch value. Apart from cod only capelin was of bigger value.

An international stock, the Atlantic mackerel is, fast swimming and a fast growing species.  Commonly 35 to 45 cm when caught, it can reach 60 cm in length. As for many oil rich pelagic species it was initially caught for fish meal and fish oil processing. The mackerel is now primarily processed for human consumption.

Blue whiting

An international stock like the mackerel, the blue whiting is a small pelagic codfish. Typical length is 22 to 30 cm but can reach up to 50 cm. Found all around Iceland, albeit only sporadically in the cold water north of the Island.

The quantity range of the blue whiting catch is enormous. Some 10,000 tonnes were caught in 1997. The catch increased to 500,000 tonnes in 2003 but was down to 105,000 tonnes in 2013. While increasingly processed for human consumption, the blue whiting is primarily reduced to fish meal and fish oil.