Part of wheelhouse in modern fishing vessel
Photo: Þorbjörn Víglundsson
Number of fishing vessels by vessel categories
Source: Statistics Iceland
Total gross tonnage (GT) of fishing vessels by vessel categories
Source: Statistics Iceland
For centuries fishing in Iceland meant strenuous and dangerous work in small open rowing boats until the introduction of decked sailboats and, in latter times, motorized decked boats and larger vessels decreased the toil.
The first small trawler arrived in Iceland in 1905 and motorized trawlers soon replaced the decked sailboats. After the First World War, catches in the demersal fisheries increased rapidly but foreign fishing exceeded Icelandic catches until the Second World War. Foreign boats have for long been fishing in Icelandic waters. During the 20th century, English and German vessels dominated the foreign demersal fisheries and Norwegian vessels the pelagic fisheries. However, most foreign fleets were expelled from Icelandic waters as the exclusive economic zone was gradually extended, from 4 miles in 1952 to 200 miles in 1975.
In the second half of this century, the Icelandic fleet has been constantly modernized for improved efficiency, comfort of the crew and safer working conditions. In 2011 there were 1,655 vessels in the Icelandic fishing fleet, including 833 small undecked boats, 764 decked vessels and 58 trawlers. The total capacity was close to 160,000 in gross tonnage (GT) and has declined from 180.000 GT in 1999.
Fishing gear has also been revolutionized, even though the basic principles of catching fish by hook, gillnet, purse seine or trawl are still the same. Handlines are now worked by computerized jigging reels and the trawl works both for the demersal and the midwater fisheries. Gear devices for improved selectivity of catch have been developed and are increasingly required in many of the fisheries. The captain has the use of the latest instruments for locating his catch and regulating its intake on board.
Few boats use only one gear or target one species. For example, purse seiners catch capelin during part of the year, herring in other seasons and sometimes trawl for shrimp during other parts of the year. Many of the smaller shrimp boats switch seasonally between Danish seine, gillnet, shrimp trawl and longline. Large trawlers fish for cod in one season, Greenland halibut in another, redfish the third and then go for cod or shrimp in distant waters.
Fisheries in Icelandic waters are now characterized by the most sophisticated technological equipment available in this field. This applies to navigational techniques and fish-detection instruments as well as the development of more effective fishing gear. The most significant development in recent years is the increasing size of midwater trawls and, with increasing engine power, the ability to fish deeper with them. There have also been substantial improvements with respect to technological aspects of other gears such as bottom trawl, longline, and handline.
Total fishery catches in Icelandic waters increased from roughly 200,000 t prior to the First World War, to about 700,000 t between the wars. After the Second World War catches increased to 1.5 million t, then declined again because of the collapse of the herring stocks. Production increased again in the late 1970s and has fluctuated between 1 and 2 million t/y since. These fluctuations are explained by the volatile changes in the size of the capelin stock, which makes up roughly half of the total recent catch.