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Warming Waters, Moving Fish: How Climate Change Is Reshaping Iceland

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Warming Waters, Moving Fish: How Climate Change Is Reshaping Iceland

ISAFJORDUR, Iceland – Before becoming a “Game of Thrones” venue, before Justin Bieber following the trails of Fjadrargljufur, and before hordes of tourists descended on this small island nation, there was fish.

"Fish," said Gisli Palsson, an anthropology professor at the University of Iceland, "enriched us." Iceland's money from commercial fishing helped the island, which is the size of Kentucky, become independent from Denmark in 1944.

But the warm waters associated with climate change are causing some fish to look for cooler waters beyond the reach of Icelandic fishermen. Iceland's ocean temperature has risen between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years. For the past two seasons, Icelanders have been unable to harvest capelin, a kind of smell, as their numbers have fallen. Warmer waters mean that as some fish leave, causing financial disruption, other species arrive, triggering geopolitical conflicts.

Worldwide, research shows that the oceans are boiling. Since the middle of the last century, oceans have absorbed over 90% of the excess heat retained by greenhouse gas emissions. To combat the heat, fish are moving toward colder waters near the two poles of the planet.

Last year, capelin fishing, the country's second most economically important export fishery, was closed for the winter fishing season on the recommendation of the Icelandic Maritime and Freshwater Research Institute, which cited a decline in fish populations. fish that attaches to unusually warm waters.

Capelin is caught and then sold either for direct consumption (its taste resembles herring), for fishmeal and for its eggs or eggs, commonly called masago. In 2017, the country's largest bank, Landsbankinn, valued fishing at approximately $ 143 million. Last month, the research institute recommended keeping capelin fishing closed for a second winter season.

"They moved north where there is colder sea," said Kari Thor Johannsson, who, like many Icelanders of a generation, fished in family boats when she was younger. Nowadays you can find him behind the counter of his fish shop in Isafjordur.

"For the first time last winter, we were not fishing because the fish moved," said Petur Birgisson, a fishing captain whose trawler is based in Isafjordur. With 2,600 inhabitants, it is the largest community of the western fjords, a region that is still heavily invested in fishing. Over the years, it has adjusted to a number of changes, including the development of a quota system that allows individuals and businesses the right to capture, process and sell a predetermined amount of fish each year. But he cannot conceive of an Iceland without fish.

If there are no fish, he said, "We can't live in Iceland."

Worry is not limited to capelin alone. Blue whiting is increasingly moving north and west in the waters near Greenland. And cod, which this year generated record profits of $ 1 billion, feeds on capelin. But Birgisson said the best place to fish for cod is that warmer ocean temperatures meet the coldest, and that is increasingly moving north by global standards.

Different species of fish have evolved to live at specific water temperatures, with some fish, such as sea bass, demanding temperate ocean climates such as those found in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and tropical fish such as Spanish pigfish. , preferring warmer waters such as those in the Caribbean. Nowadays, fishermen find sea bass in Maine and Spanish pig in North Carolina. And as the fish flee, they are leaving some areas, like parts of the tropics, entirely stripped of fish.

In addition, fish "need more oxygen when the temperature is higher," said Daniel Pauly, a professor of aquatic systems at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Oceans and Fisheries, but warmer water retains less oxygen than water. colder.

Fish are swimming for their lives, according to Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies in New York. "They are moving to breathe," she said.

In colder climates, such as Iceland, as fish like capelin head north, other fish that were previously found farther south move into its waters.

"Mackerel and monkfish used to be south of the country," said Kari Thor Johannsson. "But now they are here or in the west of the country, where it used to be colder."

As fish cross political boundaries, this can create a platform for conflict.

In the case of Atlantic mackerel, fishing is jointly managed by Norway, the Faroe Islands and the European Union. The arrival of mackerel in significant numbers in Icelandic waters in 2005 changed the relationship.

“A lot of fisheries management is about group allocation. So everyone is fighting for a piece of the cake, ”said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Interested Scientists.

In the ensuing discussions, Britain would accuse Iceland of stealing its fish, a Norwegian official would accuse Iceland of establishing its own rules, and all parties would accuse themselves of varying degrees of dirty fighting.

"It does not remain a fisheries management conflict," said Malin Pinsky, assistant professor in Rutgers University's department of ecology, evolution and natural resources.

"In the case of Iceland, it also spread and became a trade war," he said. "This has affected international negotiations and seems to be part of the reason why Iceland has decided not to join the European Union."

Negotiations between Norway, the Faroe Islands, the European Union and Iceland on mackerel have never reached a consensus, in part because fish have migrated to waters where Iceland has exclusive fishing rights and the country has unilaterally set its own quotas. This year it has increased its mackerel quota by 30% to 108,000 tonnes from 108,000 tonnes to 140,000 tonnes.

At an October meeting, the European Union and the other two countries criticized Iceland's behavior, saying: “This action, which has no scientific justification, undermines the efforts of the European Union, Norway and the Faroe Islands to promote sustainability at long term. Greenland and Russia, which also set unilateral mackerel quotas, were also criticized, but with less force.

The rebukes are reminiscent of those that contributed to a series of conflicts, known as the cod wars, between Iceland and Britain between the late 1940s and 1976. The British admitted when Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO and deprive the block of a then critical conflict. ally.

A study led by Sara Mitchell, A professor of political science at the University of Iowa found that since World War II, a quarter of the militarized disputes between democracies were about fishing.

So while fisheries management problems have been around for a long time, climate change is exacerbating conflicts. Many fisheries that were not shared in the past are now bordering as fish move. Pinksy is a co-author of a study that found that there will be about 35% more cross-border fisheries by 2060 if we cannot control emissions.

"So now two countries have access to this population where in the past only one of them, and what we found is that we are not very good at starting to share," said Pinksy.

"I was in Dakar, West Africa, and said, 'You know your fish are moving to Mauritania,' which is north of Senegal, West Africa," Pauly said. . The answer he received was, "Let's get them, let's get them before they get there." That was a naive kind of answer you'll find everywhere. "

In the tropics, this problem is especially serious because as fish move toward the poles they are not replaced, creating a food vacuum. In some tropical countries, which emit a small fraction of greenhouse gases compared to the northernmost countries, fish provide up to 70% of people's nutrition, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

"My mother is from Ghana, my father is from Nigeria, and I tell you that for many people along the coast, the only animal protein they eat is fish – and the fish is moving," said Rashid Sumaila, Director of the Fishery Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.

Not only does this have huge consequences for people living in these regions, he said, but it also has global implications, because the lack of a critical food source can make people move.

While Iceland is still able to fish in the wild, although for different species, fish farming seems an increasingly attractive option. In 2017, the country harvested 23,000 tons of farmed fish, according to government data, although fish farming also comes with environmental concerns.

Fishing is "a dangerous job – I don't want my children to be at sea," said Saethor Atli Gislason, standing in his fishing boat in Bolungarvik, a town about 10 miles north of Isafjordur. While he is still fishing in the summer, his father works on a fish farm.

"Fish farms are a good job," he said.

"We have to start fish farming because we can't count on the sea," echoed Petur Birgisson.

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