Iceland’s rich fishing grounds in the High North of the North Atlantic reach an area beyond the Polar Circle more than seven times the size of the country. The British learnt to sail the high seas in the 15th century when they were fishing in Icelandic waters. That was before the discovery of America. After learning their trade in the High North, the British went on to sail the Seven Seas. Britannia ruled the waves. The Germans, French, Belgians, and Basques fished in the High North as well, as did the Icelanders in their tiny, open rowboats. Iceland was under Danish rule, a colony governed by Copenhagen.
At the beginning of the 20th century the European colonial nations started to send trawlers to Iceland’s fishing grounds. The Icelanders themselves bought trawlers and put engines into their boats. Their quest for freedom gathered pace. The country of 100 thousand inhabitants became a sovereign nation in 1918 under King Christian X and fully independent in 1944. However, by that time their fishing grounds were rapidly being depleted.
The Icelanders started their struggle to gain control of their fishing grounds, considered the world’s best. In 1901 the Danes had granted the English rights to fish to three miles and, in reality, to fish as they pleased. In 1948 laws were passed for protection of fishing stocks. In 1952, as the treaty from 1901 finally expired, the Icelanders declared 4-mile fishing limit. The old European colonial powers, Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany protested. The UK declared a landing ban on Icelandic trawlers sailing to British ports to deliver fish. Only a decade earlier, Icelandic sailors had risked their lives on the Atlantic bringing the starving British nation fish, defying Nazi Germany’s U-boat threats. Hundreds of sailors lost their lives as their trawlers and boats were sunk.
Iceland’s struggle for its fishing grounds took place at the height of the Cold War. Iceland, being a member of NATO responded with the unthinkable, or so London thought. Iceland made trade deals with the Soviet Union and started exporting fish to Russia, establishing close ties with Moscow. In 1958 Iceland extended the fishery limits to 12 miles; in 1972 to 50 miles and in 1975 to 200 miles. Warships of the British Navy sailed into Icelandic waters to protect British trawlers against the Icelandic coast guard’s tiny ships. Iceland, however, was not to be denied despite the might of the British Navy. Iceland won full rights to its fishing grounds with the Oslo Accord in 1976. Iceland was finally free and in control of its fishing grounds, ready to pursue its destiny…
However, its own fleet was too large and overfishing was still a problem, even though foreign trawlers no longer fished in Icelandic waters. In the eighties, quotas were introduced according to Total Allowable Catch (TAC) issued annually, based on scientific research by the Marine Research Institute. The quotas were made transferable in 1990. Basically, it became the interest of the fishing companies to care for the fishing grounds, much like gardeners care for gardens. It is stipulated in the Icelandic Constitution that the people own the fishing grounds and the fish swimming in the sea. The fishing companies have rights to harvest fish according to the quotas they own and no single company is allowed to own more than 12% of the total quota.
Iceland became a world leader in adopting market solutions to manage its marine resources and continues to this day. The goal became clear: minimise cost and maximise revenues of fishing. In general, that meant making fishing as economical as possible; saving fuel, increasing product yields and productivity, enhancing quality, raising product value and caring for the fishing grounds. Today Icelandic fisheries are the most responsible and efficient in the world.