Tuesday April 25, 2017

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REGIONAL JOURNALISM, GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE.

Business
Mackerel fishing

Fishing-boat diplomacy

What begin with a ship with engine trouble has devolved into something of a diplomatic crisis between Iceland and the Faroes
Business
My ship is loaded with trouble (Photo: Joost J Bakker)

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When the crew of the Næraberg, a Faroese fishing vessel, headed out to sea last month, they were aware that fishing in the North Atlantic is big business. But what they neither expected, nor likely appreciated, was that it is also high politics.

The problems began when the Næraberg, on its way home from fishing mackerel in the Greenlandic economic zone, developed engine trouble and radioed the Icelandic Coast Guard for assistance.

They responded by dropping the requested spare parts by parachute to the Næraberg. The repairs got the ship moving again, but not at full speed. Even so, the Næraberg might have been able to limp home, but a storm was on its way, and the skipper made a course for Reykjavik.

SEE RELATED: Mackerel deal takes “revenge” against Iceland

Had the Faroes and Iceland not been at odds over precisely mackerel fishing the story might have ended there. But, the two countries have, in fact, banned each other’s ships from their waters due to a dispute that keeps Iceland out of an international fishing agreement, and initially, the Næraberg was asked to turn back.

The ship was eventually permitted to dock, but on the condition that none of the crew of 34 left the ship. Once in port, the Næraberg was also prevented from making repairs or from taking on food, water or fuel.

Faced with a North Atlantic-style diplomatic crisis, the leaders of the two countries spoke to clear up the situation. A few days after arriving in Reykjavik, the Næraberg steamed out again, under full power and fully stocked with provisions.

The ship’s accidental arrival in the Icelandic capital, however, had left behind a mess that officials from the two countries founding themselves wondering how to clean up. The problem, aside from setting aside the principle of ‘any port in a storm’, one of the most important maritime traditions, was that the Icelandic reaction also violated the 2005 Hóyvik Agreement.

SEE RELATED: Mackerel mavericks

That deal is a free-trade agreement removing most barriers to commerce between firms in the two countries. Although some exceptions are made for the fishing industry (a vital economic activity for both) preventing ships from seeking help is not among them.

The problem is Iceland has its own 1998 law that actually does ban ships from entering the country’s ports if they are in a dispute over fishing. Reykjavik port authorities initially decided that this law superseded the Hóyvik Agreement, but then gave permission to the Næraberg to enter port.

Gísli Gíslasson, Reykjavik’s harbourmaster, said that given the conditions, he decided the ship should be treated like an Icelandic vessel, which the Hóyvik Agreement calls for.

“We don’t have a reputation for denying shelter to ships, and because of its engine trouble, this one could only sail at a fraction of full power,” Gíslasson told Icelandic media.

SEE RELATED: Fish and bargaining chips

Not knowing what do next, Gíslasson, asked for guidance from no less than three members of the cabinet, the interior minister, the foreign minister and the fisheries minister.

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, the fisheries minister, initially disagreed with Gíslasson, saying that given the dispute over mackerel, the Næraberg should not have been allowed to enter port.

Later, his ministry said it had found a loophole that permitted the ship to be repaired and leave port.

As Faroese media pointed out at the height of the dispute, their country, a nation of 50,000, was among the first to offer financial to aid to Iceland when its banking system collapsed in 2008. The loan, amounting to $60 million, may have been the world’s first pre-paid ransom.