Climate change and fisheries in Iceland

The article was originally published (in Icelandic) by the Icelandic newspaper Kjarninn.

Figure 1. The Icelandic fisheries industry is at a crossroads. (Jakup Kapusnak)

If this happens, as it seems to be doing (see, for example, mackerel), Icelandic production of marine products may increase with changing climate, and Iceland's possibilities in fish markets will increase. These are positive, but potentially temporary signs, in the otherwise bleak scenario shown by recent climate forecasts.

The Icelandic fisheries industry generally seems to be viewed positively abroad. The collaboration between the Marine Research Institute and the fisheries sector has meant that Icelandic fish stocks are largely sustainable and the utilization of the catch has increased in recent years, which is the result of cooperation between the fisheries industry, technology and research companies. The sustainable, positive image of the Icelandic fisheries industry is important, and can strengthen the Icelandic economy.

How can consumers be informed?

One way, which is also the most used, to show consumers that this is a sustainable product, is to label it as such. Many companies have used the meaning of the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, which has compiled a regulatory framework to assess whether they are worthy of receiving the desired MSC label.

In this group is a long list of Icelandic companies, which for obvious reasons want to show consumers that this is a first-class product [4]. The Icelandic fisheries industry has also supported its own certification, Icelandic Responsible Fisheries (IRF).

However, the certifications mentioned above only provide an estimate of whether the source in question is from sustainably utilized stocks, i.e. whether the fishing methods are sustainable and whether they harm the ecosystems. These certifications, however, do not assess the environmental impact of the fisheries or the products as a whole, such as energy consumption, packaging waste, emissions and carbon footprint, recovery, etc.

Quality assurance of the Marine Stewardship Council for fish products can be found on McDonald's ffilet-o-fish burgers. Picture: MCDONALDS

The global fisheries industry does not only have to make sure its exploiting the ocean’s resources sustainably, but also minimizing all the environmental impacts of fishing, processing and transport. The whole value chain.

Fisheries companies, like most companies today, want to demonstrate social and environmental responsibility in their operations, and should seek to analyze and assess all the effects of their operations and reduce them. It is clear that the companies themselves have a duty to tell consumers of the environmental impact of the product they are buying.

Changes in the climate of the Earth will affect fisheries globally, especially in Iceland. However, it seems that Icelanders, along with several other nations, can expect increased fish resources due to this trend. The reason for this appears to be that various species migrate from warmer sea to colder, near Iceland, Greenland and Norway [1,2,3].

What avenues are possible?

An environmental impact assessment of a product can be done using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Such analyzes are ISO standardized (ISO 14040) and are therefore comparable. LCA has been used since the 1980s by many of the world's largest companies with the exact goal of telling consumers what the environmental impacts are of their product. Toyota, Coca Cola, Nestlé and many other companies rely on LCA for such calculations.

In the case of fisheries, LCA does not only take into account the emissions from fishing vessels for the fishing itself, but also analyzes fish processing, transportation and storage.

LCA goes far beyond most of the eco-labels currently available, giving a deeper insight into the possible environmental impacts of fisheries than measurements that only assess the direct emissions of ships. The results of LCA analysis can also be presented in an understandable manner, so consumers understand the environmental impact of the product.

Icelanders have already begun analyzing environmental impacts in the fisheries sector using LCA analysis [5,6,7]. At Matís, such work has been done, as well as the development of a standard for calculating the environmental impacts of fisheries has taken place within the company.

For example, in Matís' project, funded by the AVS fund, it was shownd that when fish from Iceland is transported to Europe by air, the total carbon footprint of the product is much higher than when the product is transported by ship.

With criticism of the key certifications used today, and with increased environmental awareness of consumers and buyers, the fisheries industry must demonstrate the environmental impact of its product.

These are really positive news, because in Iceland, there is extensive expertise in methodology and implementation of life-cycle assessments, both within consulting companies and also within various companies directly related to fisheries. There is little reason for Icelandic companies not show what it means for consumers to buy Icelandic fish products.


[1] Cheung, W. W., Lam, V. W., Sarmiento, J. L., Kearney, K., Watson, R. E. G., Zeller, D., & Pauly, D. (2010). Large‐scale redistribution of maximum fisheries catch potential in the global ocean under climate change. Global Change Biology, 16(1), 24-35.

[2] Daw, T., Adger, W. N., Brown, K., & Badjeck, M. C. (2009). Climate change and capture fisheries: potential impacts, adaptation and mitigation. Climate change implications for fisheries and aquaculture: overview of current scientific knowledge. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, 530, 107-150.

[3] Shelton, C. (2014). Climate change adaptation in fisheries and aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular (FAO) eng no. 1088.

[4] Icelandic Sustainable Fisheries, Partners.

[5] Guttormsdóttir, A. B. (2009). Life cycle assessment on Icelandic cod product based on two different fishing methods. University of Iceland.

[6] Smárason, B. Ö., Ögmundarson, Ó., Árnason, J., Björnsdóttir, R., & Davíðsdóttir, B. (2017). Life Cycle Assessment of Icelandic Arctic Char Fed Three Different Feed Types. Turkish Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 17(1), 79-90.

[7] Smárason, B. Ö., Viðarsson, J, R., Þórðarson, G., Magnúsdóttir, L. (2014). Life Cycle Assessment on fresh Icelandic cod loins. Matís skýrsla 25-14, ISSN: 1670-7192.