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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 06:52 GMT
Iceland: An island unto itself
Icelandic Coast Guard ship and inflatable
A coast guard en route to examining a trawler's catch
By Humphrey Hawksley in Iceland

It's 1130 in the morning and the sun is just rising over the small Icelandic fishing port of Keflavik.

The Icelandic coastguard sets out to police the fishing grounds.

Without fishing, Iceland's economy could collapse, and this remote country in the North Atlantic runs its fishing in such a unique way that other European governments are now coming here for advice.

In the 1970s, Iceland fought and won the 'cod wars' with Britain, securing a territorial exclusion zone of 200 miles.

And as quotas for catching cod and other fish were slashed within the European Union last month - threatening thousands of jobs - Iceland's fishing industry remained healthy with trawler crews earning as much as $75,000 a year.

Tight local control

Krisjan P Johnsson, the captain of a coastguard vessel, explained why.

Fishermen unload their catch
Fishermen unload their catch
"We have direct control over our waters," he said.

"If, for example, we examine a catch of cod and more than a quarter of the fish are less than 55cm long, we can recommend that the fishing ground be closed immediately."

With his state-of-the-art radar and surveillance equipment, Captain Johnsson identifies a trawler for boarding.

He talks to its captain on a mobile phone, which the fishermen prefer because the line is more secure than a radio.

The first officer and a boarding team go across on the icy, but calm waters on a high-speed inflatable.

Measurements

Once on board, they wait for the crew to pull up the next catch. As the nets are hauled in to the strains of Elvis Presley, they measure the size of the fish and the nets.

Everything is fine and the fishing ground is given a clean bill of health.

Fish is examined
Fish must be above a certain size
In the EU, the same procedure has to go through numerous bureaucratic hoops, and final decisions are made in Brussels.

Many EU fishing organisations now talk about adopting "localised control" following the Icelandic example.

Iceland's windswept, volcanic, moon-like landscape has made it a strange social and scientific laboratory.

Its population is just over a quarter of a million and its currency - the krona - is linked to no other currency in the world. It is not part of the European Union and has not intention of joining.

Yet Icelanders enjoy the sixth highest standard of living in the world.

No defences

Its fishing grounds are the lifeblood of the nation, yet it maintains no navy, army or air force to protect its sovereignty.

That job is done by the Americans from a Nato base at Keflavik.

Although the European debate is beginning to rumble here, the awesome environment seems to have created a rugged individualistic pride far removed from the corridors of Brussels and determined to safeguard its isolation.

Icelandic trawler
Iceland's landscape seems to have bred a special type of independence
There is a complete ban on interbreeding livestock, and no animals are allowed to be imported into Iceland.

The Icelandic horse is descended from the Mongolian cavalry horses of Genghis Khan.

They were put on Viking boats and brought here more than a thousand years ago.

No other horse has come in and if an Icelandic horse leaves, it is never allowed back.

No foreign cows

The cow is also unique and unchanged in breed since Viking days.

Test-tube embryos are being imported from Norway, where they will be implanted on a special quarantined island.


Iceland banned all products relating to mad cow disease as far back as 1978

Snorri Sigurdsson
It will not be until three or four generations of the cows being screened and given a clean bill of health that the new breed will be allowed into Iceland proper.

"Many people laugh at us for taking so many precautions," says Snorri Sigurdsson. "But remember it was Iceland who banned all products relating to mad cow disease as far back as 1978."

This is what Iceland describes as "science-management" - in which politicians tend to listen to the advice of scientists over that of lobby groups.

It is such a crucial part of policy that even the Prime Minister, David Oddsson, is closely involved.

While Europe's cattle and fish industries are presently on roller coaster rides, and while squabbling about the single currency continues, Iceland is keeping its distance - part of Europe but certainly not part of the EU.

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | Europe
EU slashes fish catches
15 Dec 00 | UK
The fishy tale of cod
01 Jan 01 | UK
New rules to cut BSE risk
04 Dec 00 | Europe
EU agrees anti-BSE action
20 Jul 00 | UK
Has cod had its chips?
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