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Quota systems and resource management: Icelandic fishing
by Gísli Pálsson and Agnar Helgason
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Public Discontent: The Morality Of Exchange
  The vast majority of fishermen and the Icelandic public seem to emphatically oppose the privatization and commoditization of fishing rights entailed by ITQ management. To their minds, fishing rights are still very much intertwined with the symbolic notions of national sovereignty, personal autonomy and equity. In a national survey in 1991 no less than 95% of those who responded were against changing the common property nature of the fisheries to this effect (24). Another survey established that 60% of boat owners believed that the buying and selling of ITQs was morally wrong (25). As one boat owner, who was fiercely opposed to such transactions, put it: 'If it is efficient to steal from one and sell to another, then I reject such economic policy.... [i]t just will not do that the common property of the nation, like the fishing grounds, are being bought and sold by a few chosen individuals' (26).
  The issue of ownership is confused by the fact that although ITQs are in effect the private property of boat owners, they remain in name, according to the first clause of the fisheries management legislation, the public property of the nation. During debates on the fisheries laws enacted in 1990, some members of Parliament raised doubts about the 'legality' of the ITQ system, arguing that proposed privileges of access might imply permanent, private ownership which contradicted some of the basic tenets of Icelandic law regarding public access to resources. Lawyers concluded that the kind of ITQ system under discussion in Parliament was in full agreement with the law and that ITQs did not represent permanent, private property (27,28). The laws which eventually were passed reinforced such a conclusion by stating quite categorically that the aim of the authorities was not to establish private, government-protected ownership. It seems clear, however, that boat owners have become de facto owners of the fishing stocks. The Icelandic tax-authorities have decided, one may note, that ITQs are to be reported as 'property' on tax-forms and that the selling of ITQs involves a form of 'income'. Recently, the Supreme Court resolved, in a case between a fishing company and the Minister of Finance, that accumulated ITQs represented private property liable to taxation. Thus, fishing rights in Iceland have an anomalous status as ITQs -- a situation that has, perhaps, helped to prolong the existence of the system in the face of firm opposition to its fundamental principles.
  Nevertheless, many have begun to realise the new private-property nature of fishing rights, particularly with the increase in profit-oriented monetary exchange with ITQs. Fishermen and small-scale boat owners are deeply concerned with this aspect of the system, complaining that this was not the fisheries management system that they consented to in 1984. Through a vigorous public discourse that erects and affirms close moral boundaries around permissible economic behaviour with ITQs fishermen attempt to resist and contest profit-oriented exchange with fishing rights. Boat owners who transgress these boundaries are labelled 'quota-profiteers'. Frustrated fishermen look on as businessmen prosper from trading these new fishing rights back and forth, picturing 'quota-kings' spending hours in front of computer screens profiteering with ITQs. One skipper, commenting on this situation, claimed: 'For the chosen few who can lease quotas to others and buy more quotas for the profits, [the quota system] is like a snowball effect . . . There is no stockbroker in Reykjavík that can invest your money more effectively, that is if you have any'. Such claims and direct industrial action challenge the underlying morality of privatization advocated by the Boat Owners' Union, administrators, and many economists, attempting to return fishing rights back to a more traditional state.
  Many Icelanders are also wary of the concentration of ITQs in the hands of the large vertically-integrated companies and the emergence of the new relations of production associated with fishing for others, using heavily loaded feudal metaphors to describe this state of affairs. Voicing these concerns for fishermen in general, the editor of the Icelandic fishermen's journal (Víkingur) put it this way:

Before you know it the whole national fleet will be in the hands of 10 to 15 individuals who will then also 'own' all the fish in the waters around Iceland. Thus a new aristocracy will have emerged, an aristocracy that decides where fishermen and employees of the fishing plants will live, what they earn, and what rights they are to have (29).

  In public discourse, the large firms that have been accumulating ITQs are habitually referred to as 'quota-kings' or 'lords of the sea'. Such explicit accounts of structural inequalities in the Icelandic fishing industry represent a significant shift from earlier discourses, which euphemistically projected structural differences onto individual differences (3).
  These references to images of exploitation and domination are further augmented by descriptions of ITQ leasing associated with 'fishing for others' as a 'tenancy' system, where the lessor 'quota-kings' are likened to medieval landlords and, conversely, small-scale lessees become 'tenants' or 'serfs' (leiguliðar). One skipper described the 'tenant' situation in the following way during an interview:

they fish vigorously while fishing their own quotas, after that they end up in the tenancy-system.... a system which gives them no earnings; all the profit goes to those who own the quota, the quota-kings.

  In the 'tenancy' system it is the 'quota-kings' who make the rules; not only do they own most of the ITQs, they also control many of the plants that buy the catch. Thus, quoting the same skipper again: 'one must give in to almost every demand, because the quota-king makes all the rules, sets the price and everything'. The 'quota-kings' themselves view the matter from a totally different perspective, maintaining that most of the so-called 'lords of the sea' are really on the verge of bankruptcy and citing envy as the source of the feudal metaphors.


In January 1994 fishermen went on a national strike, protesting against the ITQ system, especially the effects of the so-called 'tenancy-system'. The leading slogan they employed was 'No More Profiteering!' (Braskið burt!). To many of them this was a battle aimed at getting rid of the ITQ system. As it turned out, the strike resulted in a two-week stand-still in the fishing industry. Ultimately, the strike was terminated by temporary laws which forced fishermen back to work. Not content with this turn of events, fishermen went on strike again in May 1995. This time an agreement was reached with boat owners involving concessions on both sides.
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Quota systems and resource management: Icelandic fishing,
by Gísli Pálsson and Agnar Helgason.
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