“Life is Salt Fish”
The sea has long been the food chest of the Icelandic people, and the most important export product since the fourteenth-century. The percentage of the work force engaged in the fishing industry is still very high, although only 5% of urban workers are employed by the fishing industry. Outside of the capital city area the proportion is about 6%, and some 30% in the West Fjords, while the percentage in and around the capital is the lowest (2%).
Fishing enterprises and fish processing can be found throughout the country, with coastal villages more or less deriving all their income from ocean fishing. In order to carry on ocean fishing one must obtain a quota, a requirement that has proved to be one of the nation’s most controversial regulations in a very long time.
Whereas fishermen once sought their catch in sailing vessels and row boats, the Icelandic fleet has now become hi-tech in all aspects of its operations. The fleet became mechanized at the turn of the last century and developments in the frozen preservation of the catch, together with a renewal of the trawler fleet after the last World War, has placed Iceland amongst the foremost fishing nations of the world.
The Icelandic fishing fleet, with some 1700 ships (including about 50 trawlers) is considered one of the best in the world. The fishing industry makes up a very significant part of the nation’s wealth, which was a major reason for the decision to claim a 200 mile exclusive fishing zone, even though it entailed a conflict with Britain. The claim made it possible for Iceland to govern fishing practices within its boundaries and a fishing quota was quickly set.
Icelanders on Distant Fishing Grounds
Not all were agreed that it would be desirable for Icelandic fishermen to visit grounds outside Icelandic waters. When they began fishing in the so-called Smuga (“Hiding Place” or no-man’s land) in the Barents Sea, the Norwegians reacted very strongly: the Icelanders were taking fish from their fish stocks. Various people (among them Icelandic fish experts) believed that Icelanders had been aggressive in their Smuga-fishing, displaying a degree of hypocrisy. In the end, agreement was reached with the Norwegians and Russians whereby Iceland was given a limited quota on the Barents Sea in return for a small herring quota in the Icelandic fishing grounds.
After the “Smuga-fishing”, restrictions on distant fishing areas were released and Icelanders now go to literally all the oceans, operating vessels and fish processing across the world. In South America and Africa, Icelanders have created profitable niches for themselves by offering consultation on ocean fishing practices and similar services to locals.
For a while Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and the EU have been in a dispute called "The Mackerel war" regarding Iceland's and the Faroe Islands' overfishing of mackerel in the EU fishing areas.
Significant technological developments in aspects of fishing and fish processing have gone hand in hand with this expansion, with the high-tech world strengthening in recent years. The Icelandic fleet lands about 1,3 million tons of fish each year.