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The Collapse of the Atlanto-Scandian Herring Fishery: Effects on the Icelandic Economy

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  • After 1950 traditional herring fisheries were revolutionized by a new technique: sonar, power block, larger nets and bigger boats. As a result all major herring stocks in the North East Atlantic Ocean collapsed. The most dramatic decline was that of the Atlanto-Scandian stock between Iceland and Norway from millions of tons to the border of extinction in a decade. It was one of the largest fish stocks in the world until the fishery crashed in the late 1960s. The catch in 1971 was only 20 thousand metric tons in contrast with the record of 2 million tons in 1966 and the spawning stock declined from 10 million tons to 10 thousand tons in 20 years. After more than 20 years of very restricted catches the stock finally recovered. With hindsight the cause of this disaster was a combination of biological, technological, economical and ecological factors, but the most important ones were over-fishing, recruitment failure and the cooling of the East- Icelandic current which was one aspect of a global climate change in this part of the world during the period 1965-2000. At that time there was no fisheries management authority to limit either catch or effort. The sudden closure of the fishery was a shock to many communities in Norway and Iceland. The small Icelandic economy was especially vulnerable because salting and reduction of herring was for many years the most important export industry in the country, sometimes exceeding 40% of the total value, and a source of wealth around the country that trickled down the society. After describing the simultaneously waning stock and waxing effort by mathematical models we will first demonstrate some macroeconomic quantities before and after the collapse and then take a closer microeconomic look at some of the communities that based their existence on the herring fishery. Finally we will outline the recovery when other species replaced the herring and new industries gradually diversified the economy.
  • KEYWORDS: Population Dynamics, Fleet Dynamics, Climate Change, Herring
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  • Sigurdsson, Thorir. 2006. The Collapse of the Atlanto-Scandian Herring Fishery: Effects on the Icelandic Economy. In: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Biennial Conference of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics & Trade, July 11-14, 2006, Portsmouth, UK: Rebuilding Fisheries in an Uncertain Environment. Compiled by Ann L. Shriver. International Institute of Fisheries Economics & Trade, Corvallis, Oregon, USA, 2006. CD ROM. ISBN 0-9763432-3-1
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  • The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries Service, United States Department of Commerce (NOAA Fisheries); United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); The United States Agency for International Development supported Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Support Program (ACRSP).



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