Battle over the fjords

Icelandic salmon farm

Iceland’s elected representatives are weighing up the arguments for and against further growth in the country’s salmon farming sector. Vince McDonagh reports

Iceland’s fish farmers could be heading for confrontation with the Reykjavik government over the future of their industry.

The aquaculture bill now being presented to the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, is setting out a long-term strategy for the country’s salmon sector. The farming companies are far from happy with some of the proposals in the draft bill, however – and they want to see changes.

Iceland’s salmon industry is growing at an impressive rate and has brought major economic benefits to many once depressed coastal communities, which had seen fishing revenue decline.

Aquaculture is also providing a sizeable chunk of tax revenue for the country’s exchequer, which the government cannot ignore.

Politics and fish farming are never far apart, and it is the same in Iceland where much of the country is divided on the issue – especially over open pen salmon farming.

As with most Nordic countries, Iceland is governed by a broad and a sometimes puzzling political coalition.

sport fishing organisations are campaigning to stop net-pen salmon farming

Sport fishing organisations are campaigning to stop net-pen salmon farming

After the 2021 parliamentary election, the new government became, like the previous government, a tri-party coalition of the conservative leaning Independence Party, the Progressive Party and the Left-Green Movement.

The government is headed by Bjarni Benediktsson of the Independence Party. He succeeded the long-serving Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left-Green Movement, who stepped down in April this year and, at the time of writing, is running as a presidential candidate.

The problem for the government is that salmon farming has become highly controversial among some groups over the past year following escapes and other serious incidents.

Criticism, however, tends to be concentrated in urban areas far from where the fish farms are located. It is a different matter to those living on the coast.

The government believes its Aquaculture Bill strikes a reasonable balance, but the seafood industry organisation, SFS (Fisheries Iceland in English) does not agree. It argues that some of the measures contained in the bill are both excessive and coercive.

A significant proposal which could allay some concerns – and one in which Iceland is likely to differ from the much larger Norway – is that each fjord would be restricting to a single fish farming company, so the farmer would take individual responsibility for issues such as water quality.

salmon jumping

Salmon jumping

Kolbeinn Árnason, Director General at the Icelandic Ministry of Industry and Innovation, said recently the country had learned from Norway and the Faroe Islands that shared responsibility resulted in a race to the bottom, in environmental terms.

SFS maintains: “Fisheries should be built in a sustainable way, but care must be taken that unrealistic demands for risk and fees do not hinder too much innovation and the development of the industry.”

Progress, it argues, should be done through reforms in the administration of fish farming, with incentives for investment in innovation and more environmentally-friendly solutions.

The SFS also states: “Infrastructure development [is important] together with a simple and efficient regulatory framework and working environment for operators. It is also necessary to ensure increased supply and access to green energy for land heating and general energy exchange, and to strengthen the pillars of education in legal heating holistically.”

The organisation says that it has long focused on strengthening the competitiveness of Icelandic aquaculture and creating the conditions for sustainable productivity growth that results in increased national economic value.

SFS also argues that fees for fish farming in the sea, as set out in the bill, do not take into account the operational status of Icelandic companies and will continue to damage competitiveness in international terms.

The industry also believes the effects of the bill are not sufficiently clear. For example, the minister is entrusted with a great deal of power to make decisions and issue government directives on matters important to the interests of licence holders.

But SFS does concede that the plan does contain a large number of innovations that the organisation believes can contribute to the achievement of some of the goals it seeks, although there are worries over some of the provisions.

Ice Fish Farm boat

Ice Fish Farm boat

Other concerns include broad and disproportionately burdensome injunctive relief and administrative sanctions, along with certain coercive measures and onerous sanctions.

It also believes that some of the monitoring and reporting measures are far too stringent and says that while it supports the establishment of marine protected areas, some of those set out have not been properly studied or evaluated.

There are also concerns over proposals to cancel operating licences and the government is now wavering on whether to make those licences permanent. A period of around 16 years has been suggested.

In fact some Althingi MPs are demanding that the licences should only be for strictly limited periods.

SFS argues: “The most important thing is that operators are guaranteed stability and predictability when it comes to their operating authorisations and that the rules for their renewal are based on objective criteria and are compatible with the basic principles of equality and proportionality.”

There has also been a groundswell of opposition from members of the public, environmental lobby groups and organisations representing Iceland’s large sport fishing industry. As reported elsewhere in this issue, more than 46,000 people have signed a petition calling for open net-pen fish farming to be banned altogether.

The industry is still hoping that some of its concerns will be taken on board, but the pessimistic view is that the government has made up its mind and most of what is being proposed will go through.

If that happens, it will not make for a happy future relationship.

Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir

Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir

Minister may back down on licences controversy
Iceland’s Food Minister Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir believes her bill is both ambitious and about protecting the environment and nature.

She said Iceland had gone further than nearby fish farming countries such as Norway and the Faroe Islands, adding that the aims of the bill included sustainable development, value creation, settlement in the country and the protection of wild beneficial populations.

There were also measures to reduce lice infestation, protect wild salmon and make excessive waste dumping a criminal offence.

But she may well change her mind on the length of licences issue following political pressure.

She said that during the preparation of the bill, it was believed that these goals could best be achieved by making operating licences open-ended and strengthening regulators’ powers to revoke and reduce licences.

The Minister has since said, however: “The plans to have the licences open for an indefinite period have met with opposition from numerous parties, and I understand that and have considered it necessary to act.”

She has told MPs that the matter has been referred to a committee of the parliament.

Some MPs had described the plan to make licences indefinite as a massive mistake, arguing that government appears to have earlier bowed to pressure from the industry on this issue.

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