Iceland: Fish fight spawned over Ukraine sanctions

Joining the West, Reykjavik imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, but now its fishermen are paying the price.

A scene from the shore of Kolgrafafjordur, a small fjord on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland [Brynjar Gauti/AP]

Reykjavik, Iceland – A geopolitical struggle 3,300km away has Icelander Halldor Kristinsson concerned for his career catching mackerel in the North Atlantic.  

In response to economic sanctions imposed against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, Moscow in August retaliated by banning food imports from those countries involved, including Iceland – the Nordic island nation with a population of about 330,000.

Nearly two-months later, it is ordinary fishermen such as Kristinsson who are paying the price for global politics. Russia’s fish ban has far-reaching consequences for Iceland as it is the largest market for mackerel and capelin fished by Icelandic companies.

“The price we’re getting for mackerel now is only 60 percent of the price we got last year, before Russia imposed its ban on Icelandic fish,” Kristinsson told Al Jazeera. “And now our family is only operating one boat instead of three, and we expect to bring in only 100 tonnes of mackerel this year, compared to 350 tonnes last year.”

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Kristinsson’s family business operates from the western tip of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. His sister, Erla Kristinsdottir, said the fishing community of Rif – population 163 – expects to land only 500 tonnes of mackerel this year.

But other fishermen here aren’t as concerned.

Axel Helgason, who runs his business from Keflavik off the southwest coast, has a fixed buyer who already agreed to purchase his entire catch. “My buyer says it’s not a problem, he can sell lots to Africa,” Helgason explained.

Not everyone is so lucky, he noted. “Half of the fishing boats are in a position of not finding customers anymore.”

Crucial market

Drifa Snaedal, general-secretary of the Federation of General and Special Workers in Iceland, told Al Jazeera her organization is studying the effects of the Russian sanctions on small fishing communities.

“We expect fish factory workers to suffer a considerable loss in wages next year. During the peak fishing times for capelin and mackerel … these people usually work 12 hours a day and thus supplement their otherwise low wages significantly,” Snaedal said.

Sanctions imposed by the West on Russia since March 2014 over its alleged support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have cost the country some $40bn.

Iceland joined countries such as the US, UK, and Canada in implementing the economic penalties, but now the move has some here questioning why.  

According to data from Statistics Iceland, exports of fish to Russia increased six-fold since 2008. Russia imported frozen mackerel, capelin and herring worth $271mn annually, and ranked second to Spain in terms of Iceland’s fish exports.

A few days after the sanctions on Iceland were announced, three ships were stopped on their way to Russia and sent back.

The fish on those boats are “probably in the Rotterdam freezers, waiting for prospective customers”, Kolbeinn Arnason from Fisheries Iceland, an industry association, told Al Jazeera.

Russia also implemented tit-for-tat sanctions on Norway last year over Ukraine, but the Norwegians reportedly overcame the problem by sending their salmon to Russia via Belarus. Russia announced in August, however, any banned food coming through the backdoor would be destroyed.

Brynjolfur Eyjolfsson, marketing manager for fishing company HB Grandi, said it does not intend to reduce its workforce because of the Russian ban.

“But it is possible that the workers concerned may have to work reduced hours – we just don’t know yet,” Eyjolfsson said.

Why antagonise Russia?

Foreign Affairs Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson acknowledged that Russia’s food ban was a serious blow.

“We have to keep in mind that throughout the years and decades we have always been able to enjoy good trade relations with Russia, which is one of our most important markets for fish products,” Sveinsson said in an emailed statement.

“We are deeply disappointed. Russia’s decision to add Iceland to its list and single out our exports is a knock to our economy and affects the livelihood in small villages around Iceland.”

The Russian embassy in Reykjavik declined to comment for this story.

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Jon Olafsson, a Russia specialist from the University of Iceland, said Iceland’s position on the conflict in Ukraine simply reflects its geopolitical relationships.


“Firstly, Iceland is a member of NATO,” Olafsson told Al Jazeera. “Although Iceland isn’t a member of the EU … it would have been very strange not to have been part of the common response to the Russian aggression.”

But he acknowledged the move could backfire on the government.

“After the Russians imposed the ban on Iceland there has been a political reaction, and there are many people in Iceland who now question the official policy,” Olafsson said.

The professor noted, however, that enduring relations with the West are far more important than selling boatloads of fish to its arch rival.

“I think what people are worried about is that the long-term consequences of breaking away from the European partnership would be much more severe than losing some business with Russia,” said Olafsson.

Source: Al Jazeera