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Mackerel fishing

Fish and bargaining chips

In the North Atlantic, the mackerel fishing season is under way. Newcomer Greenland is looking to make its presence felt

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Greenland’s mackerel season is as short as it is intense. In 2013, the season lasted from July to September. This year, it got underway earlier – the first ships took to the water in mid-June. But if the country’s fishing ministry has its way, the 31 vessels allowed to fish mackerel will scoop up the 100,000-tonne quota well before the season ends this autumn.

In order to ensure that that happens, 10 percent of the overall quota remains unassigned, and will be given out to ships that fish their share of the catch early.

Saving the 10,000 tonnes for the fastest fishermen is more than just a to encourage efficient work. It is also a way for the government to ensure that when it sits down at the negotiating table with other countries fishing the North Atlantic it will be able to use the fully fished quota to show that it should be considered a member of the region’s official mackerel fishing agreements.

Currently those agreements include the EU, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Russia.

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For Greenland, being included in that group would be a mark of recognition for the self-governing member of the Danish Kingdom. Of more tangible importance, however, is the economic benefit: if the entire quota is fished this year, Nuuk stands to earn 95 million kroner in landing fees, and in the long-term biologists say mackerel fishing could bring in more income for the country than prawns, currently its leading export.

Those same biologists, though, warn that the overall quota of nearly 1.4 million tonnes of mackerel expected to be fished in the North Atlantic this year is well over the sustainable limit. The maximum amount, according to ICES, an ocean-research organisation, is just over 1 million tonnes.

It is for this reason that Greenland’s entry into mackerel fishing, which began in 2011, when it set a quota of 134 tonnes, has not been entirely welcome. Other mackerel fishing countries point out that experimental quotas should not exceed 4,000 tonnes, and accuse Greenland of pursuing “unregulated commercial fishery”.

The method of setting unilateral quotas has proved useful for other countries in the past. In 2008, Iceland, after nine years of unsuccessfully lobbying for entry to NEFAC, the organisation that regulates, among other things, mackerel fishing in the North Atlantic, began setting its own quotas. Two years later, it was finally accepted to NEFAC.

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Adding to the intensity of Greenland’s mackerel fishing this year is the domestic debate over whether the fishing ministry gave enough of the quota to Greenlandic vessels.

From the outset, the government’s stated goal was to use the experimental fishing to build up a domestic mackerel capacity. To do that, it has awarded 52 percent of the quota to Greenlandic firms. Even so, some of those firms will be fishing with foreign-flagged vessels. In all 17 of the 31 ships have Greenlandic owners. The remaining come from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Russia, China and St Kitts and Nevis.

Some Greenlandic fishermen whose applications to fish mackerel were rejected are upset about that and accuse the government of prioritising fishing the quotas faster over job creation and allowing small firms to get their foot in the door.

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Responding to a critical editorial in Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic weekly and this website’s sister publication, Finn Karlsen, the fisheries minister, rejected claims that the government had overlooked its own fishermen.

“I consider it to be crucial that we build up a capacity to fish mackerel,” Karlsen wrote, explaining that regulations prioritised Greenlandic firms that owned their own vessels.

The other vessels, Karslen, pointed out, were either chartered by Greenlandic firms – as is the case with the Chinese vessel, which will fish for Royal Greenland, a nationally owned firm – or they were registered in a NEAFC country.