Effective management is essential if marine resources are to be utilized in a sustainable and a responsible manner. Sustainable and responsible fisheries management is of a fundamental importance as fisheries are one of the main pillars of the Icelandic economy. Given this fact, the current management policy of the Icelandic government strongly advocates responsible fisheries through ecologically and economically sustainable management of the living marine resources.
In 1901 Iceland declared a fishing limit of three nautical miles which remained in effect until this was extended to four miles in 1952. As scientific knowledge of the fisheries resources increased it became clear that some of the most important fish stocks, most notably the cod stock, were under severe pressure by a multinational fleet and that strict fisheries management was needed.
Icelanders campaigned for three quarters of century to win full jurisdiction over their fishing grounds and championed the international cause of coastal states to manage fisheries within their waters and prevent overfishing. Important milestones on that path were the extension of Iceland’s economic zone to 12 miles in 1958 and further to 50 miles in 1972. The 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone was fully effective from May 1976.
All the extensions of the fishing limits were opposed by the distant fishing water nations fishing near Iceland and these events are still referred to as the "cod wars". Historically, however, the very first of these involved conflicts between Icelanders and foreign fleets and fish merchants in the 15th century. In modern times all jurisdictional fisheries disputes have been solved by international agreements.
A very important landmark in the campaign for jurisdiction was the national law set in 1948 (No.44/1948) for the scientific conservation of the continental shelf fisheries. The law is very brief. It states that the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries will issue regulations concerning areas protected against fishing within the Icelandic continental shelf. Also, that these areas will be subject to Icelandic control with the main aim of scientifically based protection of fish stocks. All the extensions of the fishing limits after 1948 were based on this law.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea inter alia codified this extension of costal State national jurisdiction. In entered into force in 1994, one year after being ratified by 60 nations. In 1985, Iceland was the first state to ratify this treaty.
In 1975 foreign fleets were catching over 100,000 tonnes of cod annually from the Icelandic stock. The foreign fleets were then taking about a third of the total cod catch, a quarter of the total haddock catch and around half of the total catches of saithe and redfish. No effective fisheries management for groundfish was possible under those circumstances. When the 200 mile limit became effective the foreign share of the catches declined rapidly and fishing was strictly controlled by agreements with other nations.
Soon after gaining control over Iceland’s Exclusive Economic Zone in 1976, serious concerns were raised that the most valuable fish stocks were being overfished. Various forms of fisheries restrictions have been applied and there has been an intensive political debate on different systems of management ever since Icelanders gained control of their 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone. In 1983 the conclusion was made that effort limitations, which had been in force since 1973, had proved unsuccessful and that the cod stock was in decline. The Althing, Iceland’s national parliament, adopted a management system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) for individual vessels based on each vessel's catch performance from 1981–1983.The first year of allocating ITQs was 1984. However, until 1990 there was an effort option in the system that made it difficult to limit total catches. The present comprehensive fisheries management system is still based on ITQs. The objectives are, according to the Fisheries Management Act, to promote the conservation and efficient utilisation of the marine resources and thus to ensure stable employment and economic viability of fishing communities. In other words, the aim is to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries while emphasising the economic benefits of the fisheries sector.
This catch limitation system is the cornerstone of the Icelandic fisheries management system. The system is intended to limit the total catch and to prevent more fishing from the fish stocks than the authorities allow at any given time.
The catch limitation system is based on the catch share allocated to individual vessels. Each vessel is allocated a certain share of the total allowable catch (TAC) of the relevant species. The catch limit of each vessel during the fishing year is thus determined on basis of the TAC of the relevant species and the vessel’s share in the total catch. According to Icelandic law the total allowable catch (TAC) is set by the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture and this decision should be based on scientific advice from the Icelandic Marine Research Institute.
In addition to the ITQ system, Icelandic fisheries management includes many other management measures such as area restrictions, fishing gear restrictions, and the use of closed areas to conserve important vulnerable habitats. Extensive provisions are made for temporary closures of fishing areas to protect spawning fish from all fishing. These measures are all meant to support and secure the sustainability of the fisheries.
Effective control and enforcement is inseparable part of the responsible fisheries management. The Directorate of Fisheries monitors Icelandic fisheries closely to ensure that all rules are being followed. Iceland has one of the most sophisticated enforcement regimes in the world, in particular regarding port control and weighing of all catches. According to Icelandic law, discards are prohibited. All catches must be landed.
Scientific research is essential for successful management as extensive knowledge of the ocean around Iceland and its ecosystem must be the foundation regarding decisions on sustainable fisheries and other utilization of the natural resources of the sea.
The Marine Research Institute carries out wide ranging and extensive research on the status and productivity of the commercial stocks, and long-term research on the marine environment and the ecosystem around Iceland. The results of this research are the foundations of the advice on sustainable catch level of the fish stocks.