Exploring Fisheries Management and Livelihoods in Iceland

The settlement of Norðurfjörður is home to 50 people who are snowed in all winter when the roads shut down. In the summer the harbor in bustling with activity from visiting fishermen due to its close proximity to cod grounds. Photo: All photos courtesy of Catherine Chambers The North Atlantic island nation of Iceland is home to both large and small-scale fisheries; among them are cod, capelin and herring fisheries. Strong fisheries coupled with the country’s unique fisheries management system makes it a perfect place to explore questions of how people, their families, interests and finances are all connected to fishing and management strategies. These questions are driving the ethnographic research of University of Alaska Fairbanks doctorate researcher Catherine Chambers. She’s lived in Iceland for the past six years and is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project titled, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Northwest Iceland, to examine these questions and their broader implications.

This month Catherine Chambers discusses her doctorate project, how she collected data and some initial findings with Field Notes.

Catherine with a small perk of the job. If you help out on deck you might get to take home dinner!

Field Notes (FN): Where did the idea to study fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Iceland come from?

Catherine Chambers: My husband and I came to Iceland in 2008 right at the time of the global financial crisis, which, as you might know, impacted Iceland first and very significantly. I became really interested in how people talk about the link between economic crises and other crises or changes, like climate change. There’s such a strong link between fisheries and economics, of course. For me it was really interesting to watch the discourse develop—OK, we have this really big financial shock, what does that mean for how we access our fish? Can we still make money off of our fish? So I began this self-led exploration in to all these issues through the Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic program at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this project?

CC: The main question I have centers around the connection between how we design our fisheries management systems and what that means for the individuals engaged in fishing. We know from around the world there are so many really intense cultural connections to fishing. Fishing is a way to make money, but it’s much more than that in many places. So my big question is what does a sustainable fisheries management systems look like - sustainable both ecologically and socially.

FN: What makes Iceland so well suited for this type of research?

CC: In Iceland almost all of the fisheries are run under one management system, which is a quota system. That means that the right to fish is a tradable commodity. So you own the right to fish and you pay for that right. The reason that it’s interesting to look at fisheries management in Iceland is because when you have something like people needing to pay to enter a limited fishery, it brings up questions about equity, who has the money to participate, and the fairness of the system.

FN: What roles do fishing and fisheries play in Icelandic culture and modern day society?

CC: Icelanders have always had a strong relationship with the sea, which has changed over time. The Vikings that came from Norway were farmers. Fishing was a way to feed their families in the winter months. It wasn’t until the 1700 or 1800s that people from other countries came in significant numbers to access the rich fishing grounds here.  Then in the 1800s and 1900s, as fishing technology improved, Iceland as a nation really started to get in to fisheries. When Iceland became an independent nation in the 1940s, fishing really became a nation-building activity because of the high export value of fish, especially cod. Fishing here has a very different history than a lot of other places where marine resources have been taken in large quantities for daily sustenance and direct consumption. It’s always been tied in with money and commerce, but that doesn’t mean it’s more or less culturally important.

Conducting an interview for a short film on fishermen's experiences with sea ice. Here Chambers talks to a fisherman about the way the ice moves in the bay and how fish accumulate around the ice.

FN: How did you collect data?

CC: I primarily used methods from social sciences, especially anthropology, because I’m very interested in the cultural connections to fishing and fishing livelihoods. I use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The qualitative methods are interviews. I go out on fishing boats to observe and help out, I meet up with fishermen in cafes and sometimes go to home visits and I have a list of questions to make the interview a bit more standardized. But I can deviate from those questions a little if something interesting comes up, and that makes it a little more qualitative than quantitative. I then transcribe those interviews and put them in to a coding software. It’s kind of like how people tag photos on Facebook. For example, you can tag every time someone is talking about salmon in the interviews. This lets you process the data in a way that is meaningful and lets you see how people are thinking about issues and what is important to them.

After I analyze the qualitative interview data, I then take the major themes, issues and questions that come up and I turn them in to survey questions. Last summer I finished a big, nationwide survey of Icelandic fishermen. We surveyed people by mail and also collected demographic data. The survey let me quantitatively test some of the questions that came up in the interviews to see if a broader survey sample size of people still agrees with that.

Iceland is pretty small, but it was great to take a whole sample frame of a nation. That’s really hard to do in the U.S. and maybe other countries. We sent the survey out to 500 people. There are approximately 1,200 small-scale fishing boats. So to survey a little less than half is pretty amazing. And the response was great.

FN: Are there any initial findings you can share with Field Notes readers? 

CC: In the survey there was a section that examined job satisfaction. Understanding how people like their jobs is an important link in fisheries management. It’s really interesting because the way people respond to these questions lets you know what’s going on in the fishery.

I have a lot of responses about people enjoying being their own boss, not wanting to work in an office, and therefore people want fisheries to be sustainable. People also want to be involved in fisheries management to ensure they and future generations still have a job as a fisher.  So you begin to see the underlying reasons of why people are fishing.

Research partner Katharina Schneider chats with a fisherman about his many previous boats, all with the same lucky name.

FN: What’s next?

CC: My next steps are to take the results, once they are ready, back out in to the community. My plan is to go around the country and do some talks in communities to show people what it is that I found. I want to invite fishermen to the talks to show the research they participated in is meaningful. I want to also invite community leaders and decision makers so they can see the results. For more information of Catherine Chambers' research, visit: https://sites.google.com/site/catchambers/. Also check out a short video Chambers produced about her research titled Fishing livelihoods & fisheries management in North Iceland visit, at http://vimeo.com/40929092. Alicia Clarke