The skullduggery of fish politics by Quentin Bates

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I have a great many friends in Iceland and I’m dreading meeting them after the EU finally slaps sanctions on Iceland. It looks like it’s coming. It’s going to hurt, and Icelanders aren’t going to understand why it’s happening.

A few months ago I wrote about the mackerel debacle. North Atlantic mackerel is huge, booming, and has burst the banks of its usual stamping grounds, expanding north and west into Faroese, Icelandic and even Greenland’s territorial waters. Icelanders and Faroese have made the most of the bonanza, catching abundant mackerel and in the process ringing a death knell for the longstanding but never comfortable mackerel treaty between Norway, the EU and the Faroe Islands.

The nations have been talking about this for the last five years and so far progress has been zero. Places that have long fished mackerel, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and a few others, are outraged that Iceland should be shovelling up mackerel with what they see as impunity. Icelanders can’t see why they shouldn’t catch what’s on their own doorstep; they can’t see why they shouldn’t catch what is so abundant in their waters right up to the beach that fishermen can’t avoid catching it.

In fact, Iceland has already done itself few international favours in this business. Foreign policy in the past has been pretty ham-fisted during previous disputes. When blue whiting was under the microscope and with those protracted talks in progress, the Icelandic fleet put huge effort into this fishery, building up a track record in a few short years and coming away from the negotiating table with what others still see as an unfairly large portion. Other disputes in the Loophole off Northern Norway and on Flemish Cap were also characterised by the Icelandic government’s brash attitude and left something of a sour taste.

Now it’s mackerel, and this time the other nations concerned aren’t prepared to let Iceland have its way so easily. The European Parliament has voted for sanctions, under strong pressure from Scotland and Ireland to do so. The framework is there and sanctions could be clicked into gear at any moment, stopping Icelandic producers from selling cod and haddock to buyers in Europe and curtailing a crucial source of foreign exchange.

On the sidelines is Norway, which sees itself as a victim in the mackerel situation, but which also has its eye on the European market for groundfish. Norway can supply all the cod Europe needs and if/when sanctions apply to Icelandic groundfish, then Iceland’s Norwegian cousins will gleefully swipe their business if there’s an opportunity to do so.

Maybe it’s a symptom of Iceland’s remoteness, or the frontier island mentality, but Icelanders frequently fail to take in the complexity of this. It’s an issue that has hardly been touched on in the Icelandic media. I’m sure Icelanders don’t genuinely believe that sanctions will be applied, and that this is just Europe rattling a tinfoil sword. But I’m dreading having to respond to Icelandic friends and acquaintances when they level the finger at me, as if I’m personally responsible for what goes on in the European Parliament or the whispering behind closed doors between those best of friends, EU and Norway.

In reality, there has been little will in Iceland to resolve the mackerel issue, while for Scotland and Ireland this is a matter of urgency. The Icelandic government has made some of the right noises but in fact has done virtually nothing towards an agreement with Europe or anyone else.

It hasn’t helped that the fisheries minister until earlier this year was a man with a nationalistic, virulent anti-EU position. This was a mix that allowed fishing companies to fish hard on mackerel and build up something of a track record – that essential bargaining chip for when the quotas are hammered out between nations, the other being zonal attachment. Iceland has relatively little zonal attachment for mackerel, as it’s only a few short years since those little gold nuggets swam into Iceland’s waters, but a growing track record of landings has been built up in those half dozen years.

Sanctions against Iceland would without doubt hammer the the final nail in the coffin of any prospect of Iceland joining the EU – playing into the hands of those powerful lobbies in Iceland who have most to gain from hanging onto the mackerel fishery, but who would also pay dearly in losing cod exports. Maybe that’s the plan and it’s a price they’re prepared to pay? It’s extremely hard to tell what motives are at play behind the scenes. On the other hand, driving a crafty wedge between Iceland and Europe may well suit Norway very nicely.

Any sanctions, if and when they come into force, may well be deeply unjust and will more than likely hurt the most those who are least to blame for the situation. But Europe and Norway between them have the muscle to hit Iceland very hard on this. I can already hear the fury and the outrage from Icelanders as once again they become the victims of what they see as Big Brother in Europe putting the boot in to a tiny nation.

It’s a tough world and this is business; nothing personal. Not that Icelanders are going to see it that way.

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Quentin Bates

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