At my interview in December, I told Rosy [the executive director of the fellowship program] that I designed my project around cod rather than a variety of fish species because I wanted to take the time to get to know the nuances and complications of the cod fishery specifically; I wanted to use the year to focus myself, immerse myself in something, to understand a subject in greater depth than I had been able to while in college. I guess it was a good enough answer that six months later, I found myself heading off to Iceland to begin my year studying cod. Over the past three months, however, rather than becoming any kind of focused expert, I have found myself discovering just how much there is to know to understand anything about the complexities of cod fisheries and their management schemes, and I have realized that my Watson project studying cod fisheries is about far more than a single species of fish.
In trying to pick up as much as I could about cod biology and ecology (I was shaky at even identifying a real-life cod when I arrived in Iceland), I found myself learning just as much about other species the cod interact with. I towed for jellyfish on a small research boat, the initial stages of a project trying to determine how to protect the growing cod aquaculture industry in Iceland from an autumn plague of stinging Lion's Mane jellyfish that kill the cod in their sea cages. I sorted and counted the fish catches from shrimp trawls all over the north of Iceland for Iceland's annual shrimp survey, a far better introduction to the survey methods used to set Iceland's fishing quotas both for cod and most other species than the papers I had read. I toured aquaculture facilities for blue mussels and halibut, two of the country's most promising farmed species in a world market where seafood is increasingly supplied by farms rather than the sea. I learned the Icelandic names for over a dozen kinds of fish (many of which I had also never heard before in English), each of which I held, probed and taught myself to identify (including even identifying partially-digested shrimp and capelin squeezed from a cod's stomach into a sieve to investigate the voracious cod's diet). I attended an entire session of the ICES conference on monkfish, a strange-looking groundfish I had never given much thought to before, which is now replacing cod as a major target species in areas where the cod fishery has been drastically reduced. Fisheries science is inherently practical and interdisciplinary: the environmental factors that affect cod and the other major fish species are nearly infinite and the more the scientists understand, the better they can provide the required advice as to how to manage the fish stocks.
The complexities of the fishery, however, only begin with the science. Even after two and a half months in Iceland, I still don't know what to think of the Icelandic fisheries management system – which I realize, after the ICES conference and my first attempts to understand the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy, is probably the simplest I will encounter this year. Before coming to Iceland, I had mainly heard the Icelandic fisheries management system described as a quota plan done right – extensive surveys to properly assess stock size, a fisheries ministry that at least now takes the science seriously, and a quota system that actually limits the amount of fish landed to the amount set based on the year's stock. The current quota system, which consists of a yearly total allowable catch (TAC) set for each species by the Ministry of Fisheries based on scientific and economic advice and divided among fishers using a system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) that allow individuals or companies to own a share of the nation's fish resources, seems at face value to account for all the necessary elements to conserve the fish stocks. But, like most of the world's fisheries management schemes, it hasn't quite worked as intended – exceptions that enabled fishing above the TAC were allowed based on political pressure, the Ministry of Fisheries consistently set quotas above that recommended by the scientists, and the scientists often overestimated the stock size. Because of all this, the fish stocks and the cod in particular aren't doing as well as anyone had hoped, leading to the announcement soon after I arrived in Iceland that this year's cod quota will be more than 30% lower than last year's.
Unlike in most countries where fishing is a minor concern, most Icelanders, even those not involved in fishing, follow the system closely because of its continued importance to the overall economy. This meant that the quota decision sent ripples throughout the country: the government announced that it would replace jobs lost in fishing by building new roads and tunnels to create construction jobs; small towns began applications for new research facilities, museums, and government grants to support them during the periods of poor fishing. It also meant that everyone wanted to talk about the fisheries policies since, as the scientist in charge of the annual groundfish survey told me the day I landed in Reykjavík, "everyone in Iceland is a fisheries scientist." That is, everyone, whatever their involvement in the fishery, has an opinion about the management system, an observation I could soon confirm from the opinions both solicited and unsolicited I heard from many of the people I met. The head of the advisory section at the Marine Research Institute, in charge of providing the official advice used to determine the annual TACs, blames the political shortsightedness that created loopholes in fisheries regulations and led the Ministry of Fisheries to repeatedly ignore scientific advice over the past twenty years for the current depleted state of the cod stocks. Many fisheries scientists confidently support the system based on a thorough, data-rich stock size assessment, but others point to unaccounted-for complexities in the cod's behavior, genetic structure, and feeding habits (often the specific complexity that they have spent their career studying) flaws in an oversimplified stock assessment and management system. A man from Reykjavík told me he thought the quota system worked so poorly that the fish will probably be gone in a few years, that trawling should be banned immediately because it's destroying the ocean bottom and destroying the environment – an opinion that depending on your own opinion could either represent the influence of Greenpeace activism on a cityite who had lost his understanding of Iceland's dependence on natural resources or the wisdom and precautionary perspective gained by one of the few Icelanders no longer dependent on exploitative fisheries.
The perspective of large fishing companies, however, was the one I found most surprising, primarily because I had not expected them to so graciously accept the quota reduction or to so vehemently blame the small fishing boats for the industry's problems, but also because I had not expected to be so swayed by their arguments. Binni Kristgeirsson, manager of the large fishing company Vinnslustöðin, seemingly one of the most sustainability-minded in the business (he was one of the few to argue for this year's quota reduction), told me when we met at his office in Vestmannaeyjar that he thinks that ITQs are the best management strategy because they give the industry rather than the politicians control over their own destiny, blaming loopholes and political handouts rather than the principle of the quota system itself for the declining cod populations in recent years. He says that fishing companies that own their own share of the quota recognize that it's in their best interest to maintain healthy fish stocks in a healthy ocean environment, and that since it's the fishing industry that has the greatest stake in sustainably managing the fishery (not, he says, the politicians in Reykjavík who can gain votes by providing handouts or short-term economic boosts at the expense of long-term fishing prospects), the industry should have more control over the management system. He compares fishing with farming – just as the Icelandic sheep are released in the summer to go wander the mountains and each farmer knows that he owns a certain share of those sheep which he will be able to gather at the end of the summer, Icelandic fish should be able to swim in common waters without being harmed by others and then can be harvested by the fishermen based on the amount of fish they own with their share of the quota. Just as a farmer wouldn't kill an entire herd of sheep to make a large profit in one year but instead culls the herd only to the point that in can maintain itself in the coming year, fishermen who own a share in the fish stocks will know that it is in their best interest not to overfish so that the population can remain large in the coming years.
Both Binni and Jón Kjartan Jónsson, director of fish farming with seventeen years of experience at Samherji, the company with the second-largest fishing quota in Iceland, agree that it's not the large companies that own most of the quota shares but the small independent fishermen from the small, floundering fishing towns that are jeopardizing the future of the fishery by fishing without quotas, trashing low-value fish (a practice known as highgrading), and pushing for additional loopholes and concessions that allow extra fishing beyond what should be allowed under a strict quota system. Many small boats and small-town companies have sold their entire quota to the larger companies and then, Binni says, they decide they still want to fish so they go crying to the politicians to make an exception for them and give them an additional quota. Often, he says, they comply, undermining the system by decreasing the value of the existing quotas that companies like Vinnslustöðin bought within the regular system and reducing everyone's faith in the long-term value of holding a share in the quota. These small towns are like misbehaving children, he says: if you give a child candy every time it cries, it will just learn to keep crying rather than learn to behave. He doesn't sentimentalize small-town Icelandic fishing, but says that towns come and go as the times and technology change and people need to learn to adapt rather than just expect handouts. When asked about rule-breaking and enforcement of the fisheries legislation, both Binni and Jón Kjartan point to small-boat independent fishermen as the rulebreakers, saying that unlike the big companies that they work for, the small fishermen are not long-term stakeholders in the fishery and are more interested in making quick money than in remaining fishermen for years to come. Jón Kjartan says that while the large companies know they have to follow the rules or else they will get caught and penalized, the small boats can often get away with throwing back less than prime market price fish or landing fish without quota.
One of my major disappointments from my time in Iceland was that I never got first-hand sense for the views of the independent small boat fishermen, a combination of the difficulty of finding them (even the representative from the Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners association I talked with was a scientist, who told me he thought the small boat owners were trying to make quick money rather than stay in the business for the long term), the language barrier, and a lack of interest in talking about fishing among those who had left the industry. Even though the large fishing companies don't seem to be out to get the small fishermen, but I still worry that the major losers in the ITQ system are small fishermen who can't afford to hold on to their quota when times are hard. This consolidation of the fishing industry affects even successful small fishermen: I talked with a woman in Vestmannaeyjar whose husband had just gone out to sea for his first trip of the fall season and his first trip since his boss had sold his ship along with the crew to one of the large fishing and fish processing companies in town, Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja. Even though her husband still had a job and perhaps the fishing industry as a whole had become more efficient through the consolidation, the disappointment in her voice was palpable as she described how the boat had been repainted with Ísfélag colors and been renamed…it will take a while to get used to the new name, she said.
Although my natural tendency is to support independent fisherman over large companies and conservation over exploitation of resources, I find myself questioning my own beliefs as my ingrained (and, I realized, mostly US-centered) assumptions are challenged by the people I meet. Despite the American pop songs on the national radio station and "Cool American" Doritos in the grocery store, most of my knowledge from home doesn't apply in Iceland. Perhaps it really is only wasteful sentimentalism that tries to preserve the culture of old fishing towns, largely a culture of subsistence and poverty, with little to glorify or want to preserve in a world of geothermal heating, electric lighting, and grocery stores full of imported foods. Perhaps the international cry to "save the whales" should be reconsidered for the Icelandic cod-eating minke whales to allow whale hunting in order to save the fish in a country where over half the GDP still comes from fish exports. Perhaps there is hope that a quota-based management system that relies on strict compliance can function in a country small enough that all the fishing companies can police each other and all the official fisheries-related government offices, both scientists and politicians, can be housed in the same building in downtown Reykjavík. I don't have any answers, just a growing series of questions that seem to grow exponentially as I learn more about the context and complexities surrounding cod fisheries.
My experience thus far, quite separate from fish and fisheries, has also been much about questioning myself. Questioning my ability to do my project, my day-to-day decisions, my ideas not just about fisheries but about the world in general. After a whole week of rain kept me from venturing far from the hostel in Vestmannaeyjar, I found myself asking, am I really in the right place, seeing the right things? When people I tell about my project immediately suggest I write a book or publish a fabulous paper, I wonder, could someone else have seen more, accomplished more, gotten more out of this fabulous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I have been given? When I spend time on my own, I often feel shiftless and lonely and wonder whether I am able to properly appreciate an "independent experience"; but when I spend time with others, I feel like I am giving in by finding a way to make myself feel comfortable and safe. I find myself considering other people's viewpoints more seriously and more carefully questioning my own –on everything from the war in Iraq to the redeeming qualities of enormous cruise ships to the benefits of state-run religion – while in places where I can't speak the local language, don't know the local customs, and often find myself relying on the kindness of people with backgrounds and ideas very different from my own. Yes, the reason I am here is to study fish, and certainly I know more now than I did three months ago, but when I wake up each morning, I am usually not thinking about cod; I am thinking of friends and family at home, thinking that I will spend most of the year waking up by myself in a place where I few or no people know who I am, wondering where I will live next week, wondering whether I might have to rearrange the entire rest of my project while waiting to hear back about my visa to Denmark (which I did finally get after hours on the phone and in waiting rooms while in four different countries, perhaps one of my more significant accomplishments thus far).
When I told Rosy that I wanted to limit my project to a single species, I was imagining an experience that could be focused, defined, explained in a neat five-page proposal. I imagined that I would be able to sift through everything I learned and pull out my own answers, not necessarily figure out how to fix the world's cod fisheries but at least parse my own ideas. The reality I've found so far, however, is much too complex for any answers, or even a complete and coherent listing of all the questions. And the more time I spend traveling and learning, the more questions and fewer answers I have. It's only been three months, though, and I have nine more to keep adding to my list of questions and maybe, by the end, find some answers.
I’m getting settled in here in Hirtshals and should have some more to say soon about the area and what I’m doing here.
So that's where I am so far.
I’m getting settled in here in Hirtshals and should have some more to say soon about the area and what I’m doing here.