Icelandic Cod Sustainability

Dr. Reynir Smári Atlason, founder of Circular Solutions
Dr. Hafþór Ægir Sigurjónsson, founder of Circular Solutions

When it comes to sustainability and fishing, the focus has generally been on the maintenance of fish stock and the environmental impact of fishing. Comprehensive certification programs are available for fisheries, for example from the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent certification body (MSC) and Iceland Responsible Fisheries. These certification bodies certify that a fish stock is managed sustainably. Sustainable fishing, however, relates to other perspectives as well, such as contribution to the quality of life, economic influence, prosperity, while of course maintaining sustainable and a healthy fish stock size. In this article, we look at several factors related to the cod fishing in Iceland and how they have contributed to sustainability as a whole in Iceland.


In the past, Icelanders had for the most part very limited territorial boundaries for fishing rights. These were later mostly claimed through a conflict with the British in the 1970’s. In 1972 the territory was expanded from 12 nm (nautical mile) to 50 nm, and later in 1976 to 200 nm where it stands now. These disputes are generally referred to as the cod wars. After reaching a consensus about the 200 nm boundary, Icelanders could start managing the fisheries in a manner decided by themselves [1].


The cod stock

The Atlantic cod currently has a status of a vulnerable species according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [2]. The North-Atlantic cod, however, consists of two stocks, the Northeast and Northwest-Atlantic cod [ 3]. The Northwest stock, which can be found around the east coast of the United States and Canada was heavily overfished during the 1990’s and has yet to recover. The Northwest stock, on the other hand, has been harvested more responsibly, without overfishing, and has in recent years even been growing [4]. Figure 1 below demonstrates the stock size of these two stocks. For this very reason, the fisheries around Iceland are certified by the MSC [5]. So, even though the Atlantic cod stock is considered a vulnerable species, the stock around Iceland is far from being so, as it has not been overfished, and is growing.


Societal impact

The Icelandic society has historically been very dependent on the fishing industry. Previous studies have estimated that the fishing industry, directly and indirectly, counted for roughly a quarter of Iceland’s GDP [6, 7]. This ratio may be slightly different today, mainly because of a smaller financial sector and a boom in the tourist industry. It, however, gives us an idea of how important the fishing industry is to the Icelandic society. In fact, 4.3% of Icelanders work directly within the fishing industry, and up to 13% when including indirect jobs created [7,8]. In the USA for example, 1% of the population is estimated to participate directly in the fishing industry [9].

Iceland has managed, partly because of the fishing industry, to maintain a very high standard of living, ranking number 9 globally according to the Human Development Index in 2015 [10]. At the same time, gender inequality is also one of the lowest globally, where the Icelanders are ranked number 5 according to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) [11]. It can be seen when looking at these two indicators, that the nations scoring higher than Iceland, tend to be wealthy nations. Undoubtedly has the rich ocean contributed to the well-being in Iceland, and allowed Icelanders to improve in this regard.


The financial value of Icelandic Cod

It is however not enough to catch a lot of fish, even though the stock is managed in a sustainable way. What is caught needs to be utilized in the most efficient way possible in order to waste no raw material and maximize financial gains.

Icelanders have managed to utilize their cod with great efficiency, where a single 4 kg cod can generate up to 40 USD, only looking at by-products [12]. In the past 30 years, Icelanders have managed to increase the value of a single kg of cod by 400% [13]. Compared to other North Atlantic nations, it has been shown that Icelanders are 60% more efficient in utilizing what they catch [13]. Enzymes for fish flavouring, leather used by the shoe and fashion industry, caviar, enzymes used by the cosmetic industry, beauty collagens and pharmaceutical nerve regeneration products are among the few types of products using by-products from cod [12]. It is through these various industries, using cod by-products, where the financial and social value of cod is maximized. In essence, the Icelandic fishing industry affects most Icelandic industries, from advertising agencies, banks and tourism to the more conventional and direct fish processing plants.


The environmental impact

Catching fish in the North-Atlantic, just like everywhere else, is of course energy intensive. The Icelandic fishing fleet has however been improving in that regard. Compared to the carbon emissions in 1990, the fleet had reduced emissions by 43% in 2014 [14]. It is estimated that this number can go up to 87% before 2030 as conventional fossil fuel will be replaced by renewables. In 1990, the Icelandic fishing fleet contributed to 22% of total emission from the Icelandic society, in 2014 this had been reduced greatly down to only 10% [14]. Catching one kilogram of cod inside Iceland’s territory using a long-liner and processing the fish within the country, is estimated to account for approximately 0.7 kg CO2e emitted [15]. For a kg of cod caught using a trawler, this number is higher, where approximately 1.3 kg CO2e is emitted. The transport of the fish overseas using air-freight then accounts for another 5.5 kg CO2e [15]. This indicates that the transport of the fresh fish via air accounts for the majority of the carbon footprint. However, innovative measures are being taken to lower this impact, for example by using unused cargo room in passenger flights for cargo transport. Niceland Seafood will offset all carbon output from transportation to provide carbon neutral products.


So what do we conclude?

Purchasing fish from the well managed North-eastern Atlantic cod stock, caught using an efficient fishing fleet, processed with great efficiency in Iceland and almost fully utilized, is likely to contribute to the high living standard, the low gender inequality and financial prosperity of the Icelandic nation. Doing so also lessens the pressure on the already depleted North-western Atlantic cod stock, and allows the stock to grow and be utilized in the future.


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