Iceland P.M. cites EU fishing dispute as case for independence

June 19, 2013 at 12:02 AM
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REYKJAVIK, Iceland, June 19 (UPI) -- Iceland's new prime minister this week cited the country's mackerel fishing dispute with the European Union as a prime example of the value of sovereignty.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, speaking to Reykjavik crowd Monday during the Iceland's National Day marking its birth as an independent nation in 1944, said the EU's demands that Iceland reduce its mackerel catch shows why the country needs to maintain its independence.

Gunnlaugsson, whose new coalition government took power last month, campaigned on promises to delay consideration of joining the EU until a national referendum can be held within the next four years.

"Opinion on whether to join the European Union is divided," he said, "... But there is one thing that Icelanders can all agree on. This is that at the moment, the European Union needs to convince Iceland of its true nature."

The EU, allied with Norway, last year failed to reach an agreement with Reykjavik on its allowable share of the mackerel fishery in the North Atlantic amid protests from Scotland and Ireland that Iceland -- along with the Faroe Islands -- are engaging in massive overfishing.

The EU and Norway offered Iceland a 4 percent cut of the $1.4 billion mackerel take, but has Iceland demanded 15 percent. In the meantime, Iceland and the Faroes have issued unilateral quotas covering their own fishing grounds far in excess of what EU members deem to be sustainable levels.

In response, Scotland and Ireland have demanded economic sanctions be slapped on Iceland.

Brussels, Gunnlaugsson said, is ignoring the Iceland's sovereignty in the dispute over mackerel fishing.

"In the light of the extensive debate that has taken place about the implications of EU membership for fishing, Icelanders must also watch and see whether the EU will treat Iceland with greater fairness in disputes over our fishing within our own economic zone," he said.

"To apply illegal sanctions against a small nation for catching fish in accordance with scientific guidelines and within its own economic zone, at the same time as larger nations are making catches from the same stocks without any criticism being voiced, would hardly promise well for a common fisheries policy."

Iceland says the EU and Norway are ignoring scientific evidence that more of the fish are feeding in its own territorial waters and contends it is being shortchanged by being limited to a small percentage of the overall North Atlantic fisheries take.

Sigurgeir Thorgeirsson, the Iceland's chief fisheries negotiator, told The New York Times the EU is continuing to ignore the evidence that mackerel migration patterns have changed, with the fish now crowding into Icelandic waters.

He said his country needs to unilaterally increase its mackerel catch to make sure other vital species aren't crowded out.

That argument, however, hasn't mollified critics of Iceland's fishing actions.

Irish Member of European Parliament Pat Gallagher criticized European Fishing Commissioner Maria Damanaki last week during a debate on illegal fishing for failing to bring immediate sanctions against Iceland.

The MEP contended Iceland's share of mackerel in the North Atlantic has jumped from 1 percent in 2006 to almost 23 percent, while the Faroe Islands have increased their share from 4.6 percent in 2009 to 29.3 percent in 2013.

"The continued failure by you [Damanaki] to tackle the reckless overfishing of mackerel by both Iceland and the Faroe Islands is inexplicable and astonishing," Gallagher declared.

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