Icelandic fisheries are managed through a catch limitation system. A fixed TAC (Total Allowable Catch) is annually issued for each species, based on scientific research and formal advice. While the TAC is the cornerstone of the management system, the catch quotas are primarily distributed through the ITQ (Individual Transferable Quotas) system where individual operators have a fixed share of the TAC.

The fisheries management system is by law anchored in the formal advice presented by the Marine Research Institute. While closely followed in recent years, the advice is nonetheless subject to a wide consultative process involving industry stakeholders, universities etc. Over 98% (by value) of the species from Icelandic waters are subject to the quota system. The Directorate of Fisheries, however, is in charge of administrating the quotas and keeps an up to date track of total catch and landings in an open database and oversees all quota transfers between vessels.

Initial phase in 1984

The initial phase of the ITQ system was implemented in 1984. This system was adopted after years of overfishing, to the point of the cod stock being seriously threatened. It replaced various approached that were aimed at limiting catches by capacity controls and “days at sea" that soon proved to be very ineffective and in fact failed spectacularly.  It was, however, the abolishment of quota transfer restrictions in 1990 that provided the Icelandic fishing industry with a management tool to maximize the flexibility of catch for production – absolutely a key element for the industry's efficiency today.

While the ITQ system sets the framework for defining the catch permits, the Icelandic fisheries management system is supported by various other management measures, such as area catch restrictions, fishing gear restrictions and area closures for the protection of vulnerable habitats. Extensive provisions are made for temporary closures of fishing areas to protect spawning fish and their offspring.

Controls and enforcement

Effective controls and enforcement is a pivotal element of a responsible fisheries management system. The Directorate of Fisheries closely monitors fisheries to ensure that all rules are being followed. Discards are prohibited by law and subject to heavy fines. Real-time status of catch figures is delivered to a live database through a synchronised weight control system at all registered landing ports.

The Marine Research Institute carries out a wide range of extensive scientific research projects on the status and productivity of the commercial stocks while monitoring the marine environment and the ecosystem around Iceland on a long-term basis.

Annual TAC

The Marine Research Institute carries out wide-ranging and extensive research on the status and productivity of commercial stocks, as well as long-term research on the marine environment and the ecosystem in Icelandic waters. This research is the basis of the Institute‘s advice on sustainable catches of the fish stocks at each time. Fisheries management is required by law to be based on formal advice on TAC from the Marine Research Institute.

The Ministry of Industries and Innovation is responsible for policy decisions on the fisheries and as such publishes the TAC for each year. While MRI recommendations have been followed closely in recent years, they are nonetheless subject to a wide consultative process involving industry stakeholders, scientists, and the municipalities of Iceland, thus promoting wide consensus on policies.

The role of DoF

Effective control and enforcement is an inseparable part of responsible fisheries management. The Directorate of Fisheries (DoF), an agency of the Ministry for Industries and Innovation, is an independent administrative body responsible for the day-to-day management of fisheries and enforcement of the relevant laws.

Accordingly, the DoF issues fishing permits to vessels, allocates quotas, oversees quota transactions, ensures that catches are in accordance with rules and carries out surveillance and inspections of fisheries and landings. The Directorate of Fisheries monitors Icelandic fisheries closely to ensure that all regulations are obeyed.

In addition to the individually transferable quota system, Icelandic fisheries management includes many other management measures such as area restrictions, fishing gear restrictions, and the use of closed areas to conserve important vulnerable habitats. Extensive provisions are made for temporary closures of fishing areas to protect spawning and juvenile fish. Bycatch of seabirds and ocean mammals in certain fisheries is monitored and registration of such catches in logbooks is enforced. These measures are all meant to support and secure environmental soundness and sustainability of the fisheries.

Catch figures and quota status

Iceland has one of the most sophisticated enforcement regimes in the world, in particular regarding port control and weighing of all catches. According to Icelandic law, discards are prohibited. All catches must be landed.

Approximately 65,000 landings of Icelandic fishing vessels are weighed in annually at the 64 registered ports of landing and recorded to a central database at the Directorate of Fisheries. The registration of the landings are detailed by species and weight with an accuracy of one kilo. Catches are simultaneously subtracted from the vessel´s quota in an electronic system. Information on the catch and quota status of each and every vessel is hence immediately available as information from the database and is published online.

It is of vital importance for the administration as well as for the industry to have prompt information on catches. Monitoring of the fisheries is made easy and administration becomes more transparent, efficient and trustworthy. Moreover, such transparency encourages cooperation with authorities and various forms of self-policing by the industry itself.

The quota system

Transferable quota shares in a given stock have been distributed to individual fishing vessels in proportion to their part in the catches during the three years prior to the introduction of the stock into the quota system.

Annual catch quotas are allotted to each vessel by distributing the total allowable catch according to the quota shares attached to each vessel. Quota shares and catch quotas are the cornerstone of the Icelandic fisheries management system. The system is intended to limit the catches in line with total allowable catch. There is no distinction made between targeted catch and bycatch. A vessel must meet all its catches with catch quota from its portfolio. Both quota shares and annual catch quotas can be transferred between vessels.

Various flexibility provisions are in place in order to facilitate matching a vessel‘s catches and its quota portfolio upon landing. This means that quota transfers are not always necessary in order to accommodate the quota portfolio to the catches.

  • Catch quota for one species can be used to count against a limited catch amount of another species.

  • A small part of the year‘s catches are allowed outside the quota system provided that the fish goes to auction and the proceeds go to a public fund for supporting marine research and safety at sea.

  • Catches of undersized fish can to some extent count only as half their weight against quota; this is to discourage discards.

  • Finally, 15% of the catch quota can be transferred to the next year and 5% overfishing is allowed which will then be deducted from next year‘s catch quota.

Catch and quota status of the Icelandic fleet



Controls and enforcement

A central fishing vessel registry is maintained; only registered vessels that have been granted a fishing licence may engage in commercial fishing. Before embarking on a fishing trip, the vessel‘s operators must ensure that the vessel has sufficient catch quota for the expected catch.

When catch quota is insufficient, the vessel operator must acquire additional quota for the vessel. This must be done within three working days and the vessel is not allowed to go out fishing until the quota status has been rectified. Failing that, the vessel loses its fishing license.

Effective controls

Effective controls and enforcement is a pivotal element of responsible fisheries management. The Directorate of Fisheries and the Icelandic Coast Guard monitor and control commercial fishing and the landing of catches.

A short-term quick closure system has been in force since 1976 with the objective to protect juvenile fish. If, in a given area, there are several consecutive sudden closures, the Minister can issue a regulation to close the area for a longer time period, thus directing the fleet to other areas. The Directorate of Fisheries and the Coast Guard supervise these closures in collaboration with the Marine Research Institute.

Many areas have been closed permanently. These closures are based on knowledge of the biology of various stocks with the aim of protecting juveniles and vulnerable marine ecosystems, e.g. cold water corals.

International cooperation

Regional fisheries management organisations play a key role in securing the conservation and sustainable use of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. In this respect, Iceland cooperates actively with neighbouring countries to ensure conservation and sustainable use of marine resources in nearby waters.

This cooperation is exercised trough participation in regional organizations such as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO), and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). Furthermore, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is an important partner in marine research, the basis for responsible fisheries management.

For more on international cooperation on the Directorate of Fisheries website.