Britain to press for sanctions against Iceland as mackerel war escalates

Trade sanctions should be imposed against Iceland and the Faroe Islands to stop their "reckless plundering" of stocks at risk of collapse from over fishing, the British Government will say this week.

Scottish fishermen have long been calling for tough measures against the countries, in the "mackerel wars" that began when Iceland and the Faroe Islands ripped-up agreed quotas, unilaterally increasing their share of north Atlantic stock.

Cash-strapped Iceland awarded itself a total allowable catch of 150,000 tons this year, compared to their traditional catch of 2,000 tons, while the Faroe Islands allowed itself 147,000 tons, more than five times its 25,000-ton share under the last international agreement in 2009.

The UK quota for mackerel is 173,000 tons, and aircraft already patrol Scottish waters to ensure no foreign boats profit from mackerel, which is Scotland's most valuable species with a £135m annual catch.

The Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, who will call on the European Commission to impose sanctions in a letter, said: "Mackerel stocks are at risk of collapse unless we stop this reckless plundering. We will keep trying to solve this through negotiation but if it can't be done we will push for sanctions to save the fish and livelihoods of UK fishermen."

Sanctions should not harm UK and EU interests in whitefish processing and retailing, the Government said. Most cod sold in Britain is sourced from Iceland, some 50,000 tons a year, and the fish-processing industry provides more than 14,300 jobs, according to the Seafish Survey. The Government will look to the Commission for the form the sanctions should take. They may include a ban on Icelandic landings of mackerel in EU ports.

The dispute echoes the cod wars of the 1950s and 1970s when the Royal Navy was called on to stop boats from Iceland obstructing British trawlers.

While mackerel are known as rabbits of the sea due to their swift breeding, scientists warn that no more than 639,000 tons a year should be fished to keep stocks sustainable.

The fishing industry accounts for more than half of Iceland's total exports, crucial in the wake of the banking crisis.

Fridrik J. Arngrimsson, chief executive of the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, said: "Iceland and the UK have the same rights to fish for mackerel within their respective jurisdictions. All coastal states are responsible for the current overfishing of mackerel, not only Iceland and the Faroe Islands."