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Iceland fishing for deal on EU quotas

From Rosie Tomkins and Anna Stewart, CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
  • The fishing industry is the backbone of Iceland's economy
  • But the country is at loggerheads with EU members over its mackerel fishing
  • Ireland has called for the EU to impose sanctions against Iceland for over-fishing
  • Iceland minister: Dispute is making country question pitch for EU membership

(CNN) -- The fishing industry is the backbone of Iceland's economy, but a row over quotas is threatening the country's application to join the European Union.

It's a quarrel reminiscent of the Iceland Cod Wars of the 1950s and 1970s, but this time it's over mackerel.

The country is at loggerheads with Ireland, Norway and EU members over how much mackerel it should be allowed to fish.

According to scientific studies, mackerel colonies are increasingly migrating to Icelandic waters, which means these white, pelagic fish are now an integral part of the economy.

President's tough decision

The devaluation of the Icelandic Krona in 2008 led to a boom in the export market, of which fishing accounts for 40%.

Fishing lifts Iceland's economy

Vilhjalmur Vilhjalmsson, CEO of HB Grandi, one of the country's largest fisheries, said his company caught 22,000 tonnes of mackerel last year, valued at $25 million.

Iceland president's toughest decision

"If I am going to name one thing that has saved us, or helped us, from the crisis it is mackerel," he told CNN. "It is vital that we make an agreement about the stock, so we hope the nations will come to an agreement."

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The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an intergovernmental advisory and research organization, recommends a total number of mackerel allowed to be caught in order for fish stocks to remain sustainable.

Of this total allowable catch the EU and Norway claim 90%, leaving Russia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands with just 10%. Yet, Iceland continues to decide its share of the quota unilaterally at 16%.

Fridirk Arngrimsson, the general manager of the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessels, says the quota Iceland calculates is based on science.

"The EU has simply to recognize and test the migration pattern of the mackerel," he said, "there were more than 1.5 million tonnes of mackerel in the Icelandic zone this year, the task is simply to reach an agreement on fair share for everybody and that is not 10% for Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Russia."

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Ireland has called for the EU to impose sanctions against Iceland for over-fishing, and talks in September between Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the EU were inconclusive.

The Minister of Fishing and Agriculture, Steingrimur Sigfusson, said the dispute has called into question whether Iceland wants to become an EU member.

"These negotiations have been delayed, partly because of disputes like the mackerel," he said. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to continue, and needless to say, sanctions or things like that, would be very detrimental to the atmosphere."

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