EU to block mackerel landings from Icelandic boats

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The European Union will block landings of mackerel from Icelandic boats at EU ports in a dispute over fishing quotas, a European Commission spokesman has revealed.

The EU executive has notified the European Economic Area of the action, the final step before enforcing it. The EEA groups the 27 EU member states along with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

"We have informed the EEA joint committee that we will implement the landing bans without further delay," Commission spokesman for fisheries Oliver Drewes told Reuters on Friday (14 January).

Iceland's decision to raise its mackerel fishing quota last year has brought it into conflict with the UK, Ireland and Norway and is threatening the country's bid to join the EU.

It was not immediately clear how the ban would deal with issues such as ships carrying mixed catches or imports of processed fish.

Home to just 320,000 people but a major power in Atlantic fishing, Iceland began EU membership talks in June in the hope of greater stability and financial security after the collapse of its banking system in 2008.

But the island has also sought to benefit from a surge in mackerel stocks in its waters – an apparent consequence of warmer sea temperatures.

Talks with the EU broke down last summer and Iceland unilaterally increased the amount of mackerel its boats could catch to 130,000 tonnes, compared to a traditional catch which the Union estimates at 2,000 tonnes.

It has prompted comparisons with the 'cod wars' of the 1950s and 1970s, when Iceland and Britain deployed naval forces in rows over fishing quotas.

Iceland says more than a million tonnes of mackerel – a quarter of the stock – migrated into its economic zone during the five-month summer feeding season. It plans to maintain this year's 17% share of the north Atlantic catch in 2011.

It criticised the EU and Norway last month for failing to take this into account when they jointly decided to catch 583,882 tonnes of mackerel in 2011, the majority of the amount scientists say is ecologically safe to catch.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Tomas H. Heidar, Iceland's chief negotiator on mackerel fisheries, said the Icelandic authorities will not object to the EU banning its mackerel ships, pointing out that almost all its catches are landed in its own ports anyway.

''Icelandic authorities will not object to the EU applying the same rules as Iceland and Norway on landing by foreign fishing vessels in EU ports of catches from shared stocks on which there is no management agreement. We emphasize that any such ban must be in full accordance with the EEA Agreement,'' he stated.

''We remain committed to finding, in cooperation with the other coastal states, a fair solution on the allocation of mackerel that takes into account the legitimate interests of all the parties,'' he added.

Iceland's economy relies heavily on the fishing industry, which provides 40% of export earnings and accounts for 8% of its workforce.

Between January and September 2008, the Icelandic krona fell by more than 35% against the euro, leading it to request EU membership on 16 July 2009 in the hope of restoring the country's standing among creditors and stabilising its currency.

Support for Iceland's EU accession is broad among the member states, despite the country's troubled economy. Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle has affirmed that the possible reimbursement of €3.9bn lost by British and Dutch savers in the Icesave bank crash is a bilateral issue and should not affect the country's EU accession prospects.

Icelandic public opinion presents another problem, however. Various polls carried out between 2005 and 2010 show that although there was support for starting accession negotiations, the majority of citizens consistently oppose full membership.

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