Cooperation and diplomacy, not illegal sanctions, are needed to manage the mackerel stock
In an article published today in The Wall Street Journal Europe Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson outlines Iceland's stance on the mackerel dispute, including key messages around the migration of the mackerel and the need to find a science based solution through diplomatic means. It also stresses Iceland's willingness to negotiate and find a fair solution.
Plenty of Fish in Iceland's Seas
Cooperation and diplomacy, not illegal sanctions, are needed to manage the mackerel stock.
Iceland's recently elected government has a renewed sense of purpose to resolve the international dispute over mackerel catch levels in the northeast Atlantic. Yet rather than pushing toward a fair outcome, aggressive talk of trade sanctions from Brussels is harming the effort to seal a lasting shared-quota agreement.
Iceland is dealing with an unexpected explosion in the number of mackerel in our waters. Cooperation and diplomacy, not illegal sanctions, are needed to manage the stock together. Our position is clear and unchanged: We want to sit down and reach a fair, lasting solution for all of Europe's coastal states. The EU's decision last week to move forward with sanctions against the Faroe Islands sets an unfortunate precedent.
Since 2010, Iceland has repeatedly offered concrete proposals that would have solved the dispute, including five public requests this year to reconvene the relevant coastal states—Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and the European Union, which represent Scotland and Ireland, among others, in this dispute—for urgent talks. These efforts were rejected.
Given the lack of action from other countries, Iceland's new government, which took office after April's election, decided to take bold action to restart negotiations. We reached out to our counterparts with the offer to host multilateral talks as soon as possible. We are pleased that the EU, Norway and the Faroe Islands have confirmed they will attend these new talks, which are scheduled for early September. Norway's participation is especially encouraging: The Norwegian government previously stated that it was not in a position to negotiate until after September's elections.
We hope this step removes any doubt about Iceland's desire to reach a science-based solution that protects the mackerel stock. Just as important, we hope it shows that negotiations, not nasty rhetoric blaming Iceland and threatening sanctions, are the right approach. Icelanders have to wonder: Is the EU really considering sanctioning our country, a longstanding European ally and close neighbor, as if it were a pariah state? Such an extreme measure would represent a failure of diplomacy.
The situation escalated last month at an EU fisheries ministers meeting in Brussels, where Maria Damanaki, the European commissioner for fisheries, said that a decision on sanctioning Iceland and the Faroe Islands would be made soon. Following her comments, Iceland reiterated that sanctions would be in breach of World Trade Organization and European Economic Area agreements. They would also be harmful to both the British and Icelandic economies, and would further block a diplomatic resolution.
It is important to step back and understand how we got into this predicament. Since 2010, each of the countries involved has set a voluntary quota on the amount of mackerel caught each year. In keeping with Iceland's heritage of responsible fisheries management, we lowered our 2013 catch by 15% in February, in line with advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.
Because these quotas are self-imposed and there is no limit on the collective catch, however, mackerel is being overfished. This hurts everyone in the long run. But it harms Iceland disproportionately.
Recent studies by marine-research organizations in Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands found 1.5 million tons of mackerel in Icelandic waters in 2012, compared to 1.1 million tons in 2010 and 2011. Prior to 2006, mackerel migrations into Icelandic waters were small and sporadic. The increase since then is thought to be a result of rising water temperatures, which provide favorable conditions for summer feeding. Today up to 30% of the entire mackerel population is found in Iceland's waters during the summer, when the fish swarm into our harbors and fjords and put other species at risk with their voracious appetites.
These facts have been ignored in setting the latest quotas. Each country's fair share must be based on population levels recorded in 2013, not in 2003, when almost no mackerel inhabited Iceland's waters. Yet this fishing season the EU and Norway unilaterally claimed 90% of the scientifically recommended total 2013 mackerel catch, leaving only a combined 10% for Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Russia (which is not a party to this dispute).
Far more than a tenth of the total mackerel population is in Iceland's waters. All of the coastal states need to reduce their catch, not just Iceland.
Threats of EU sanctions are a roadblock standing in the way of constructive talks. In cooperation with our European neighbors, Iceland's new government is committed to finding a fair, reasonable, science-based solution. Let's come together like the close friends that we are, rather than continue this harmful standoff.
Mr. Johannsson is Iceland's minister of fisheries and agriculture.