Fisheries management poses challenges to small-boat fishermen in Iceland

by Lauren Frisch

Icelandic small-boat fishermen are dissatisfied with current fisheries governance and concerned about limited opportunities for entry for younger fishermen, according to research by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists.

Catherine Chambers out on the water on a rare but appreciated calm day. Photo by Jill Carlile.

Moving to Iceland was a big change for Catherine Chambers, a School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences PhD student. Chambers had spent most of her life in the US Midwest before moving to Iceland in 2008, just before the economic crisis hit there. As she began to learn about Iceland through her day-to-day interactions with locals, she noticed how much the daily conversation revolved around fishing.

“The longer I spent here, the more conversations I heard about how locals valued their fisheries. I became really interested in learning more about how changes to the economy and fisheries management would affect local fishermen on a daily basis,” Chambers said.

About a year after moving to Iceland, Chambers was accepted into the first cohort of graduate students in the UAF Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic program, focused on interdisciplinary arctic marine research. MESAS is funded by the National Science Foundation. Chambers received additional funding from the Fulbright Student Program and the Leifur Eiríksson Foundation. She will defend her dissertation in April.

Chambers is working with fisheries professor Courtney Carothers to study how fisheries management can influence those who make their livelihoods in small-scale fisheries. Chambers worked on fishing boats to gain insight into common practices of small-boat fishermen, and then surveyed 164 Icelandic fishermen to dig deeper into their perceptions of industry management and opinions about the sustainability of the industry. She was particularly curious to learn if current fisheries management systems were reflecting the needs of local fishermen.

Small boats are parked in Norðurfjörður harbor. Photo by Catherine Chambers.

Fisheries management has particular relevance in Iceland. In addition to its long history of fishing, Iceland was one of the first countries to switch to a quota system in the 1980s. The individual transferable quota, or ITQ system turned the right to fish into a commodity that could be bought and sold.

One initial rationale behind adopting the ITQ system was to increase industry-wide efficiency. In theory, fishermen who have profitable, efficient operations are able to buy quota to maintain their businesses, while those who cannot afford to stay in the market sell their quota. New research suggests not all small-boat fishermen value profits above all else. Social and cultural values of fishing can be just as important. As a result, the efficiency-based quota system may not always reflect the needs of the small-boat fishermen.

Those in favor of quota systems argue that private ownership of quota will lead to greater environmental stewardship. Although this is often used as a justification for adopting quota systems, other research finds it difficult to link positive environmental outcomes to quota ownership.

For the first phase of her work, Chambers observed day-to-day operations onboard fishing boats in Kodiak, Alaska and around Northwest Iceland, as well as in fish processing plants.

Chambers explained that her participant observation period was critical for both learning the trade and creating connections with local fishermen. “By building these relationships with the fishermen and community leaders, you begin to be able to think the way they do. You have this real experiential knowledge that you wouldn’t have been able to get if you weren’t out on a boat, super seasick, wanting to go home, and freezing while you gut a fish.”

Catherine Chambers and Dave Kubiak work on a Kodiak halibut longliner. Photo by Daniel Govoni.

Conversations from participant observations also keyed Chambers in to the kinds of questions she should focus on in her survey. Small-boat fishermen in fishing communities throughout coastal Iceland responded to survey questions about individual and community history, fishing experiences and attitudes toward fisheries management.

Chambers concluded that based on generations of family members involved in fishing, fishermen value long-term sustainability in the industry over maximizing revenue in the short term. “We found that on average small-boat fishermen have over three generations of family—not including themselves—engaged with fisheries,” Chambers said. “They have this cultural connection to fisheries. Fishing is a way of life, not just a profession.”

Chambers also found that many fishermen are dissatisfied with the current form of fisheries management. This is in part because the fishermen believe the ITQ system focuses too much on increasing revenue and does not address resource protection. The fishermen argue that total allowable catch limits, which restrict the number of fish caught to prevent overfishing, can be set without a quota system. In a community with generations of participation in, dependence on and support for thriving fisheries, it is equally important that management systems consider social values to the fisheries in addition to economic success, Chambers explained.

Catherine Chambers poses on the water with a cod. Photo by Jacob Kasper.

The survey participants also felt the system lacked a good mechanism for local fishermen to contribute to the decision-making process. They wanted to be more involved in governance, figuring out which rules they want to implement for future fisheries management. The fishermen also indicated in the surveys that they would prefer a management system where governance was regional rather than national, allowing locals to have a greater say in the allocation of resources.

Finally, as in the United States, the fishing industry in Iceland is experiencing a “graying of the fleet,”—the average age of workers in the fishing industry is increasing. This is caused by a number of complex and interconnected variables such as increased costs to get established in the industry, cost of quota, or changes in social dynamics that make it less favorable to enter the industry. Survey participants, all of whom were established small-boat fishermen, were actively concerned about graying of the fleet and eager to find solutions to the problem, such as increased options for non-quota fisheries.

Chambers is already looking forward to additional research that will come out of this preliminary project. This study provides an important look at how one community of fishermen view current management systems, but there are so many other changes that can impact the way that people view communities and livelihoods, such as changes in species, industry technology and the safety of the environment that people are working in. This research is difficult and complex, but as Chambers continues to study Icelandic fishing communities, she will continue to discover how fisheries management systems reflect—or don’t reflect—the needs of fishermen country-wide.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Catherine Chambers,, Courtney Carothers,, 907-347-9677.

Friðgeir Höskuldsson teaches Catherine Chambers how to gut a lumpfish. Photo by Jill Carlile.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>