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Mackerel Wars

4 February 2013

Mackerel Wars

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard enough to manage a fishery stock sustainably when the fish stay put. Once they start moving around, it’s almost impossible. That’s why the European Union and Iceland are heading into a mackerel war. It’s a foretaste of things to come, as warming oceans cause ocean fish to migrate in order to stay in their temperature comfort zones.

The conflict this time is quite different from the “cod wars” between Iceland and Britain in 1958 and in the early 1970s, as Iceland progressively extended its maritime boundaries in order to save its cod stocks from over-fishing by British trawlers. Back then, Icelanders were indisputably in the right. If they hadn’t acted decisively, their codfish would have gone the way of the world’s richest cod fishery, on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Newfoundland lost its cod because it was no longer an independent country, and the cod-fishery ranked pretty low on the Canadian government’s list of priorities. Ottawa wasn’t willing to pick a fight with other countries over codfish when it had so many other trade issues on the table, from wheat exports to airline landing rights.

Whereas the cod-fishery was the biggest industry in Iceland, and so it fought hard to defend it: British trawlers’ nets were cut by Icelandic Coast Guard vessels, there were ramming incidents, and there was much angry rhetoric. In the end Iceland won, as it deserved to – and it still has its cod stocks. (A president of Iceland once told me privately that she believed Newfoundland would still have its codfish too if it had been free to fight for them).

But Icelanders are not saints, and this time they are in the wrong. The issue is the Atlantic mackerel, whose total catch went from about 150,000 tonnes in the early 1950s to over a million tonnes in 1975, and then fell back to around 700,000 tonnes by 2010. A smaller relative of the tuna, its flesh is much in demand in Europe, and it has become a mainstay of the British, Dutch and Scandinavian fishing fleets.

They know that the mackerel stock is being over-fished, and in recent years they have set quotas for the Total Allowable Catch. This required complex negotiations between the European Union (representing the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands) and Norway (which is not an EU member). The talks were successful, but last month the Marine Conservation Society removed mackerel from its “(safe) fish to eat” list anyway.

Bernadette Clarke, fisheries officer at the MCS, explained that “the stock has moved into Icelandic and Faeroese waters, probably following their prey of small fish, crustaceans and squid. As a result, both countries have begun to fish more mackerel than was previously agreed. The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries.”

What has happened is that global warming caused most of the mackerel to move north-west to the cooler waters around Iceland in the summer – and since they were now in Icelandic waters, Iceland began fishing them heavily. It set a quota, of course, but it is not a EU member, and this unilaterally decided quota was in addition to the one agreed between the EU and the Norwegians.

Last year scientists advised a total catch of no more than 639,000 tonnes of mackerel by the EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Russia. However, about 932,000 tonnes was caught – 307,000 tonnes more than was safe. And almost half of that excess was down to the Icelanders, who caught almost no mackerel ten years ago.

Icelandic Industry Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson told the Scottish Sunday Express: “In the summer you can see mackerel jumping on the water at the harbour, which is something new for us. The numbers coming to our waters are quite incredible and they double their weight when they are here….Our catch will be above the scientific advice but all I am willing to say is we will be as responsible as our situation allows us to be.”

Loosely translated, that means that Iceland wants a much bigger share of the Total Allowable Catch because it now has most of the mackerel in the summer, while the countries that traditionally fished the mackerel are digging their heels in and trying to hold on to their old quotas. “We will be as responsible as our situation allows us to be” could also be the slogan of the EU countries – and it isn’t responsible at all.

Maybe they’ll all see the light before they fish the mackerel out, but the EU is now muttering about sanctions, and Icelanders don’t respond well to outside pressure. Everybody involved understands what’s at stake here, but they are all answerable to their own fishing industries at home, not to international law (there is none on this issue) or to some wise and impartial arbitrator. So there may not be a deal. Good-bye, mackerel.

The problem is not really greedy Icelanders or stubborn British. It is climate change. And we will see many more disputes like this, some of them with a much higher risk of violent confrontation, as the warming proceeds and fish stocks dwindle.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Newfoundland…them”)


Europe: Two Things that Won’t Happen

17 July 2009

Europe: Two Things that Won’t Happen

By Gwynne Dyer

Tony Blair (or “the Winston Churchill of our Times,” as he was known in the Bush White House) is not going to be the first president of the European Union. And Iceland isn’t going to join the EU either.

This sort of story only gets traction in the summer holidays, when all the movers and shakers are away at the cottage/villa/yacht and there is very little real news to hold the ads apart. Yet somehow or other, something resembling news must be inserted between the ads.

Iceland, we are told, is going to join the European Union, and it’s also going to start using the “single currency,” the euro. Indeed, the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, has just voted to start the negotiations, and the EU says it would be happy to have the big island as its 28th member – or 29th or 30th or 31st, depending on whether Croatia and/or Macedonia and/or Albania make it into the EU first.

Don’t believe it. The Icelanders want to join the EU now because the country is dead broke, the Icelandic krona is worth less than the Lower Slobbovian gugulev, and they are very scared for the future. When there’s only 320,000 of you and the bottom falls out of your economy, the shelter of big, seemingly solid institutions like the EU and the euro has an irresistible appeal.

It has been a fast, steep fall for the Icelanders, who were among the most prosperous people in the world only one year ago. Hardly any of them wanted to join the EU, suspecting that its member countries only wanted access to Icelandic waters so they could vacuum up all their fish. Besides, Icelandic banks, which had practically taken over the economy, were among the most profitable in the world.

It was the banks that caused Iceland’s downfall. The country radically deregulated its banking system some years ago, and the small, previously humble Icelandic banks suddenly became major international players. With government backing, they grew rapidly until they were ten times the size of the real economy, yet all of the Icelandic bank directors together had a total of about 25 minutes of international banking experience.

The island had become a giant hedge fund sitting in the middle of the North Atlantic, and when the bubble burst last October it promptly morphed into a soup-kitchen. The currency collapsed, unemployment soared, and the government fell. The new government, headed by Social Democratic prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, saw no other option than to seek shelter within the EU.

But Arni Thor Sigurdsson, chair of Iceland’s parliamentary committee handling EU issues, reckons that the entry negotiations will take at least four years. Then, probably in 2013, there will have to be a referendum. By that time the world economy will have recovered and Icelanders will have regained their usual confidence – or at least, enough of it to reject membership in the EU, whose only plausible motive for wanting them to join is to steal their fish. So it won’t happen.

Then there’s Tony Blair, who was prime minister of Britain for ten years before his Labour colleagues finally got him out in mid-2007. He was only 54 when he finally left office, and the make-work job they found him afterwards as “Middle East envoy” of the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU, and the United Nations) doesn’t really fill his time. So why not President of the EU?

Well, for one thing, the job doesn’t exist yet. It will come into existence if and when the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, which can only happen if Ireland votes “yes” in a second referendum in October. (The Irish voted “no” in their first referendum in mid-2008, but opinion polls suggest that they have changed their minds.) Even if the Irish vote “yes”, however, the Poles and the Czechs also have to ratify it.

Both the Czech and Polish parliaments have approved the Lisbon Treaty, but both presidents dislike it and have not yet signed it. If one of them stalls until there is an election in the United Kingdom and the Conservatives take power, the latter would then hold a British referendum on the treaty, and the British might reject it.

It would therefore be a bit premature for any of the candidates for EU president to give up their day jobs. Blair has not even admitted that he is a candidate. As an ally explained: “He wants it, but he does not want to be humiliated by failing to get it.” He should stick with that position, because he’s not going to get it.

It is only six years since Tony Blair illegally invaded Iraq, siding with George W. Bush and against most of the other large EU states. The British public ultimately turned against his war, but most of his Western European neighbours were against it from the start. A significant number even think of him as an unindicted war criminal.

The EU frequently shoots itself in the foot, but it won’t discredit its new presidency from the start by putting Blair in the job. He will be left to roam the speakers’ circuit in the United States, advise Wall Street bank JP Morgan, and potter about in the Middle East.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…world”; and “Both…reject it”)