The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The economy and infrastructure: Fishing

Fishing began as a supplement to the diet and income of farmers, starting in fjords where there was an existing farming community and where there was both shelter and suitable places for harbours, unlike the smooth, sandy south coast of the island. As the fishing activities increased, farmers were glad of the additional income during the winter months when there was less farm work to do, but not so happy in the late summer as the fishing season coincided with haymaking time. The higher wages won by fishing denied the farmers much of the extra help they needed at that time.

The waters around Iceland are very favourable for fish, with many spawning in the warm waters of the Irminger Current off the south and south–west coasts and later spending their maturity in the cold and highly oxygenated waters off the north and east coasts.

The use of first steam trawlers and, now, far more modern ships, has meant a complete change in the type of fishing. Nowadays many factory ships can freeze and even process their catch on board, enabling them to stay at sea for months at a time and therefore go to far–distant fishing grounds.

For many centuries other countries, especially Britain, fished off Iceland's coasts and since non–mechanised ships were used then, the fish stocks were never endangered. Up until 1901, Iceland had had fishing limits varying between 7km and 60km, with only Icelanders allowed to fish in fjords and bays. In 1901, however, Denmark made an agreement with Britain reducing the limit to 6km, and opening up the fjords and bays. This agreement was ended by Iceland in 1951. In 1952, the fjords and bays were again restricted and a 6km limit was enforced, this being raised to 22km in 1958, and to 93km in 1972. British opposition to these new limits resulted in two so–called "cod wars" between the countries. When a 1973 agreement between them expired in 1975, a new limit of 370km led to a third, and more serious "cod war". After a period when a limited number of British trawlers were allowed in the zone, no British vessels have fished inside this boundary since December 1976.

For Iceland, defence of the fishing stocks was crucial since fish and fish products amounted at that time to nearly 90% of the country`s exports. Since such earnings are the means of paying for most of the necessities of life which have to be imported, preservation of the previously overfished stocks is essential.

The types of fish that are caught have varied over the years, with the largest catches in 1981 being capelin (640,000 metric tons) and cod (460,000 metric tons), out of a total catch of 1,430,000 metric tons. There was a great expansion of the herring catch in 1960–68, while the catch of capelin has forged ahead since then. Cod is a more valuable fish, however, and makes the greatest contribution to the fishing industry's total income. There are now fears over fish stocks and a "quota" system has been introduced.

The great fluctuations in the catches have caused many problems in the Icelandic economy, not the least being the underutilisation of the very expensive processing and freezer plants that have been built by many fishing co–operatives and other organisations in the larger ports. At full capacity these plants provide a major source of employment.

While only a small proportion of the fish is for home consumption, much is exported frozen or reduced to meal and fish oil. All over the fishing districts there are racks of fish drying and these are exported all over the world, with cod`s heads being particularly popular in West Africa and South America. While the larger ports will have trawlers operating out of them, the smaller fishing communities will have their own fleet of small boats which catch fish for local consumption or for transportation to a processing plant prior to export.

In some parts of the country, scallops, shrimps, and lobsters are caught but the quantities are not very large. There is only one whaling station in the country, which is in Hvalfjörður, north of Reykjavík. Whaling has been carried out since the Settlement but is now permitted for only a few summer months each year and will be phased out in 1986; the only two types of whale now caught are the fin–back and the sei. Much of the meat is exported to Japan for human consumption; the remainder is used for meat extract and pet food. The blubber is processed into oil and the bones into meal.


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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy