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News 29 Oct
Faroes go against the current for a sustainable fishing industry
by Slim Allagui
At the Torshavn docks, Ola Jacobsen is busy preparing his fishing boat for the coming season. Unlike most fishermen, his quota is set in days instead of tonnes, part of the Faroe Islands' new ecological fishing policy.
The system, designed to prevent fishermen from throwing excess fish back into the North Atlantic, was introduced in 1996 after a crisis in the early 1990s when fish prices plunged so low that the archipelago, whose economy is heavily dependent on the fishing industry, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Ola Jacobsen says that contrary to the "disastrous" system of quotas in tonnes, the new system is "good."
"It lets you fish as much as you want during a certain number of days without having to throw back the small or invaluable fish," he says, noting that he and his colleagues used to keep only the most expensive species.
For the Faroe Islands, a Danish autonomous archipelago of 48,000 people, fishing has been the mainstay of the economy since the end of the 19th century.
More than 95 percent of its exports, both in volume and value, consist of fish products, representing 3.5 billion kroner (469 million euros, 670 million dollars) of a total 3.7 billion in 2006.
In numerous other countries fishermen, biologists and authorities have long debated the best way to exploit fishing stocks, but the Faroe Islands stand out with their unique system.
The system comprises special measures to help stocks reproduce, such as closing off certain zones either temporarily or permanently. For example, the biggest trawlers are prohibited from fishing within 12 nautical miles of the archipelago.
Jacobsen says he fished 100 days in 2006 with his three crew members, hauling in 3.5 tonnes of cod and haddock.
"With revenues of three million kroner (402,000 euros, 574,000 dollars), it's not an exceptional year and there were fewer fish than in the past," he says, adding: "But that's the law of nature and not the result of overfishing."
"In a country that's entirely dependent on the treasures of the sea, sustainability is more than a modern management concept. It's deeply rooted in society," says Fisheries Minister Bjoern Kalsoe.
In his office overlooking the port, Olavur Joekladal, the secretary of the association of fishing boat owners, is a strong supporter of the system.
"It is a guarantee for sustainable and responsible fishing, making the Faroe Islands one of the world leaders," he says.
In the next step in its ecological fishing policy, Faroese fishing authorities are currently developing an electronic tracking system to be introduced in 2008.
"Consumers will be able to know exactly where, when and under what conditions the fish on their plate was caught and treated," Joekladal explains.
"When you sell a product, it is extremely important to show that the product was caught with the proper instruments, and under the proper working and packaging conditions," he says.
Fishermen, biologists and authorities "are working hand in hand" on the new quota system, which is reevaluated at regular intervals, Joekladal says.
"It has been internationally recognised and could be one of the best systems in the world to regulate fishing, putting an end to waste," he says.
The total fishing catch in 2006 amounted to 614,000 tonnes. The value of the catch rose by 18 percent last year compared to 2005, while the volume rose by only five percent.
But the new system has not entirely convinced biologists, who continue to argue that fish stocks are threatened and who are pushing politicians to reduce the allotted number of fishing days.
Politicians need to have "nerves of steel" to resist those demands, "to have the courage to show that the system works," says Jakup Solstein, the head of the association of fishing boat owners.
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