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Herring Wars: Quotas, Conflicts, and Climate Change in the North Atlantic

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

A small collection of islands in the North Sea, a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, is preparing for war. The European Union, under the auspices of an international fisheries management agreement, is ready to levy heavy trade sanctions against the Faroe Islands, an independent protectorate of Denmark. The Faroes, with a population of less than 50,000, intends to fight these sanctions, defy EU authority, and defend their economic independence. The object of contention is the right to fish Atlanto-Scandian Herring; the driving force behind this dispute–dramatic shifts in fish distribution brought on by warming seas and altered currents. This may be the first international conflict directly attributable to climate change. It will not be the last. Regardless of the outcome, this confrontation will set a precedent for future climate conflicts. Welcome to the Herring War.

Despite their uninspiring name, herring are a rather handsome fish. Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, are relatively small with a classically “fishy” (fusiform) body shape. They are among the most abundant fish in the ocean, forming schools that can number in the billions. Along with other planktivorous fishes, such as menhaden, that convert phyto- and zooplankton into higher trophic-level biomass, herring are critical to ocean food-webs. They are considered to be among the most important fish in the sea. Herring are the dominant prey species for many large, pelagic predators like tuna, sharks, marine mammals, salmon, and sea birds, among others. Their dominant predator, unsurprisingly, is us.

Herring have been an important food source throughout European and American history. The cheap, easily stored, and nutritionally rich salted herring was so critical to the growing European economy of the middle ages that it was referred to as “the most influential fishery in history” and common herring were called the “silver of the sea”. Herring is consumed both fresh and salted, and their roe is highly valued in sushi. They may also be converted into fish meal to feed both terrestrial livestock and aquacultured fish, particularly in Atlantic Salmon aquaculture operations. Herring can be reduced to fish oil, which is then incorporated into many products, including margarine, paint, and dietary supplements.

In December, 2012, at a meeting of European coastal states, the Faroese Minister of Fisheries, Jacob Vestergaard, expressed his frustration that the Faroes’ concerns regarding the management of herring and blue whiting were not being taken into account by partner nations. At issue is the claim that current quotas do not accurately reflect the relative abundance of these fishes in Faroese waters. A month later, Vestergaard released a statement arguing that, despite herring being significantly more abundant in Faroese waters compared to other coastal nations, the Faroe Islands’ allocation of ~5% of the total allowable catch for Atlanto-Scandian herring was unacceptable:

“During the last decade, there have been major changes in the distribution of herring in the Northeast Atlantic. The distribution of herring has shifted in a south-westerly direction, leading to an increased proportion of herring feeding in Faroese waters during the summer. Herring has also been observed to feed in Faroese waters for a longer period than previously. Prolonged fishery in the Faroese zone has been reported for several years, and these last years, herring has been fished in Faroese waters from May to late November. The abundance of herring in Faroese waters has made fishing for other pelagic species increasingly difficult due to unavoidable by-catches of herring.

 Survey and fishery data clearly indicate that the summer distribution and duration of herring abundance in Faroese waters is higher than seen in neighbouring waters. However, the 5% Faroese share of the herring stock is significantly smaller than any other coastal state.”

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Vestergaard concluded by announcing that the Faroes will determine their own herring quota in the near future.

Tinganes, the seat of governement in the Faroes. Photo by ADT.

Tinganes, the seat of government in the Faroes. Photo by ADT.

This March, the Faroe Islands unilaterally declared a herring quota of 105,230 tons, three times the amount they would have been allotted under the fisheries management plan. Since the total allowable catch (TAC) for all member nations is only 619,000 tons, the Faroese claim accounts for over 17% of the herring fishery. The European Fisheries Council, under pressure from the UK, responded that, if the Faroese move forward with their self-declared quota, trade sanctions will be imposed against the tiny island nation. Should the sanctions take effect, they will be the first implemented under the new European fisheries management plan and will prevent Faroese fishers from landing or importing catches in EU ports. The sanctions may also prevent all Faroese ships from entering EU ports. The Faroe Islands responded to the threat of sanctions, calling them economic coercion and requesting a return to reasoned debates. The Faroes maintain that the current stock allocation does not account for recent changes in herring distribution and that herring are more abundant in Faroese waters now than when the original management plan was implemented.

In light of the dispute, the Marine Stewardship Council stripped the sustainability certification from Faroese Atlantic herring.

This isn’t the first time the Faroes have clashed with the rest of the EU over fishing quotas. In 2010, both the Faroes and Iceland increased their mackerel fishing quotas, costing the entire fishery its Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification. Other coastal states were forced to reduce their own quotas to make up the deficit, setting a dangerous precedent for future negotiations. This “Mackerel War” which is also ongoing, peaked with a blockade by Scottish trawlers to prevent Faroese boats from landing their catch in Peterhead. Some members of that blockade were later revealed to have participated in an almost $100 million scandal to evade mackerel quotas by illegally landing and processing fish.

Fishing quotas are serious business.

The Faroese are not completely innocent of “black fishing”–the illegal landing of undeclared catches–either. In a phenomenon colloquially referred to as the “Miracle of Fuglafjørður” trawlers arrived in port, yet no fish were landed. Black fishing has come under intense scrutiny in the last decade, and some experts believe that major illegal operations are now under control and black fishing is not a significant contributor to overfishing in the North Atlantic.

North Atlantic herring are managed under several different stocks depending on the population. By far, the largest population is the Atlanto-Scandian Herring complex, which occurs in the waters of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and, of course, the Faroes. The Atlanto-Scandian complex consists of two stocks, the Icelandic Summer Spawning Herring and the Norwegian Spring Spawning Herring. These stocks are collectively managed by Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the EU, Norway, and Russia.

Herring suffered precipitous declines in the 1960’s through 1980’s. A near-moratorium in the 1980’s followed by effective management–first by Norway as the herring returned to their waters, than by partnerships among coastal states as they migrated into international waters–in the last two decades led to a strong population recovery. By all accounts, current herring stocks have rebounded and the spawning stock biomass is approaching pre-collapse numbers. Before the Marine Stewardship Council withdrew its sustainability certification, the Faroese Pelagic Organization (FPO), the organization that oversees the Faroes’ herring fishery, had high marks for sustainability. On “sustainability of exploited stock”, the FPO received a score of 95.6 out of 100, on “maintenance of ecosystem”: 90.7, on “effective management strategy”: 95.1. The Norwegian herring fishery, which was highlighted by Greenpeace as a case study for best managed fisheries, scored slightly lower than the FPO. Some of the points highlighted by the MSC regarding the Faroese Pelagic Organization:

  • “The stock is almost equal to the highest level of biomass ever recorded and there is a high degree of certainty that SSB has been well above its target reference points for more than a decade.  There is general acceptance that the stock is being harvested sustainably and has full reproductive capacity.”

  • “The fishery has very limited interaction with non-target species.  According to ICES there is no evidence that by-catch is an issue within FPO Atlanto-Scandian Herring fishery. Sorting of catch on board the vessel is prohibited.  According to Faroese law discard is prohibited.”

  • “The rights-based management (Vessel License System with a quota allocation system) for the fishery provides incentives for FPO members to conduct fisheries in a sustainable manner, by providing a long-term planning horizon (no “race for fish”) and guaranteed fixed shares of the future TAC.”

  • “There are well established adaptive decision-making processes in place, including the setting of TACs on the basis of scientific advice from ICES.”

The Marine Stewardship Council audited the FPO in March of 2013, and concluded that, despite the political posturing of the Faroe Islands, the herring fishery is still well-managed. MSC also acknowledged that the distribution of herring aggregations has shifted in the last decade, with more occurring in Faroese waters, and cites a recent report by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) which corroborates that account.

“Recent changes in the herring migration have led to an increased proportion of the population feeding in Faroese and Icelandic waters in early summer, followed by a northern and north-eastern feeding migration and distribution in late summer (WGNAPES, 2010).”

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Fishing boats lined up along the waterfront in Fuglafjørður. Photo by ADT.

Fishing boats lined up along the waterfront in Fuglafjørður. Photo by ADT.

The Faroe Islands, along with all coastal states that fish Atlanto-Scandian Herring, do not contest the total allowable catch of 619,000 tons, they are arguing that their allotment of the TAC should be proportional to the abundance of herring in their waters. Despite an increase in herring abundance in their waters, the Faroese herring allotment under the the fisheries agreement has declined from ~50,000 tons to ~32,000 tons, maintaining the ~5% allotment of TAC to the Faroes. For comparison, Norway is allotted 61% of the entire quota, while Russia and the EU have 12.8% and 6.5%, respectively. Although Russia has the second largest allotment after Norway, only juvenile herring occur in Russian waters, and Russian trawlers primarily fish in Norwegian and International waters. Atlanto-Scandian herring have never occurred in EU waters. At present, while there are treaties in place to that allow coastal states to set TAC, there is no clear definition for what constitutes a coastal state, nor are there rules for allocating quotas among coastal states.

Kjartan Hoydal spent ten years as the secretary of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Council, the governing body that oversees fishing quotas for coastal states in the northeast Atlantic. In his long career, he has been the Director of Fisheries for the Faroese government, a biostatistician for ICES, and the Senior Fisheries Biologist for the Faroe Islands. According to Mr. Hoydal, the EU’s quota allotment, which is higher than the Faroe Islands’ allotment despite a historical lack of Atlanto-Scandian herring in their waters, is the source of animosity between these coastal states.

The Herring War is not exclusively about herring. The effects of a herring quota ripple through all Faroese fisheries. Rare among pelagic fisheries is the prohibition of discards at sea. For Faroese fishers, there is functionally no bycatch–all fish are landed and all fish are counted. While mackerel and blue whiting used to be “clean fisheries”–the bulk of the catch was the target fish–herring are increasingly occurring as secondary catch in these fisheries. From the 2011 ICES Report of the Working Group on Widely Distributed Stocks:

“Preliminary information from the fishery in 2011 indicates no major changes in the fishing pattern from 2010. Mixture of mackerel and herring was again apparent in the summer fishery of the Icelandic and Faroese fleets, and preliminary information from the fishery in the Faroese zone suggests a higher degree of overlap between the two species in 2011 than in 2010, apparently due to larger proportion of herring present in the area.”

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And:

“A strong spatial overlap between herring and mackerel will increase the problems of significant bycatch of mackerel in the targeted herring fishery and bycatch of herring in the targeted mackerel fishery.”

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Last year, a third of herring landings occur as secondary catch in the mackerel fishery. This creates a new problem since all catches count towards their respective quotas. It is impossible for fishers to target everything but herring if the herring quota has been met,  This is precisely what happened last year, when, according to Hoydal, the herring quota was met while the mackerel season was still under way. Those mackerel fishermen who did not have a herring allotment to offset their bycatch, were effectively shut down for the remainder of the season.

At the core of this Herring War is climate change. The changes in herring migration and spawning patterns in the last decade, the larger populations that now spend more time in Faroese waters, and the abundance of herring that make it difficult to fish, even for other species, without exceeding the herring quota, are driven by changes in sea surface temperature, ocean currents, and salinity. As with individual hurricanes, droughts, or forest fires, it is difficult to directly link any single event to anthropogenic climate change, but we can point to large-scale trends as consistent with the impacts of global warming. In the North Atlantic, human activity has been influencing ocean processes for decades.

Between 1989 and 1996, the strongest Arctic Oscillation on record was recorded. This oscillation, amplified by positive feedback from tropospheric warming due to ambient heat trapped by greenhouse gases, reorganized circulation patterns in the arctic and generated pulses of low-salinity water from melting sea-ice. These low salinity pulses increased ocean stratification and extended the growing season for phytoplankton, which naturally lead to a bloom in zooplankton, including Calanus finmarchicus, a copepod that might as well have the common name “Herring Food”. This “bottom-up, climate forcing” scenario hypothesizes that freshwater pulses lead to regime changes, extend phytoplankton growing seasons, and relocate predator species due to shifting prey distribution. In conjunction with fishing pressure, these changes can have profound impact on commercial fisheries.

Salinity is a major influencer in herring population structure, while migration and reproductive success are driven by zooplankton biomass and hydrogeography, as well as potential spawning substrate (herring spawn on rocky seafloor). As changes in hydrogeography due to the climate forcing scenario alter phytoplankton, and ultimately zooplankton, biomass, we can expect to see these changes ripple through the food web. In addition, warmer temperatures cause herring to grow faster, but reach smaller terminal sizes and shift the spawning season towards the autumn, rather than spring. Autumn spawning is particularly worrying, as plankton abundance declines with the shortening days. While it is difficult to predict the ultimate impacts of climate change on the herring fishery–some outcomes actually point towards a greater abundance of herring under climate change scenarios–studies anticipate major shifts in the distribution of spawning stocks, with a general trend offshore and towards higher latitudes.

The current quota allotments for Atlanto-Scandian herring are based on an initial population survey from 1995. There have been no comprehensive replications of this survey to account for changing distributions. According to Hoydal, the EU has been hesitant to participate, even in these less-comprehensive baseline surveys, as they don’t want to find more herring in northern waters. The EU have an economic interest in maintaining the current allotments, as it provides them a disproportionate share of the fishery. From Hoydal: “How do you convince the EU that it’s not ‘their’ fish?”

Hoydal believes that the solution to this conflict should be based on sound science and that the antidote to these problems require the international community to establish science-based principles for allocating fishing quotas. The initial population study from 1995 needs to be replicated and all coastal states need to agree to allotments based on the results of a new study. He is also disappointed the the Faroes chose to use politics, rather than science, to initiate this debate. The Faroes unilateral declaration of 17% of the TAC is a political maneuver, with no scientific basis. He believes that real allotment based on the 1995 survey should be closer to 7 or 8%, and that current changes in herring distribution should should result in a still higher allotment. But science is slow, and the herring are once again in decline, so perhaps a bit of political grandstanding will force coastal states to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of Atlanto-Scandian herring distribution.

If science is slow, bureaucracy is slower, and neither Hoydal, nor the Faroese government are particularly worried about the threat of sanctions. Both the EU and Denmark import most of their fish, and economic sanctions against the Faroes could be just as damaging to their economies.

Recently, the EU has also threatened trade sanctions against Iceland for is self-determined mackerel quota. Iceland has a long history of successfully defending its fishing rights. The Cod Wars of the 1950’s-1970’s reshaped fisheries management and laid the groundwork for much on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The political escalation in the Herring War may have similar consequences for international fisheries management.

The broader consequences of this Herring War will ripple through the international community. The Faroe Islands are wealthy (with among the world’s highest per capita GDP), but like many small island nations, their economy is almost totally dependent on the sea, through fishing and aquaculture. They have strong political ties to major economic partners and a long history of cooperation and compromise to create what are largely regarded as among the best managed fisheries in the world. As human impacts reshape global oceanic processes, other coastal states are going to look to the north Atlantic for both guidance and precedent. The Atlanto-Scandian herring fishery is among the first internationally managed fishery to face dramatic reorganization due to anthropogenic climate change. If the coastal states of one of the world’s best-managed fisheries can’t rise to the challenge, what hope is there for fisheries on the verge of collapse?

According to Kjartan Hoydal, the future of fisheries management may not be so bright: “Climate change will break up all agreements–there will be chaos.”


(note: a few sentences have been altered from the original for clarity. ~Ed.)


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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