Fishing in Warm Seas

Climate and Industry in Iceland

Lea Rekow

This short, basic overview provides some background context of Iceland’s fishing industry, and how it is affected by waters that are warming due to climate change.

Globally, oceans are warming. Since the middle of the 20th century, the oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions. Fish evolved to live in specific water temperatures, so they are now actively searching for water they can survive in. Fish also need more oxygen when the water is warmer, but the oxygen concentration in warmer water is lower than in colder water. Fish are now forced to swim for their lives to avoid suffocating. Most fish are migrating toward the poles to find cooler waters. While some fish species are leaving warmer waters, causing economic disruption, other fish species are arriving, provoking geopolitical tensions and economic upsets. The fishing industry is Iceland’s second largest material export industry, and a mainstay of the country’s economy.1 2

Around Iceland, ocean temperatures have warmed between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past two decades. As a result, Icelanders are having difficulty harvesting Capelin, a type of smelt. Capelin has been a backbone of the industry and is the country’s second most important fisheries export. In addition to being caught and consumed directly (its taste is said to resemble herring), Capelin is also sold for fish meal and its roe (masago). In 2017 Iceland’s largest bank, Landsbankinn, valued the fishery at roughly $143 million, yet fishing for this type of smelt has now been paused for several seasons because of a decline in their numbers. This decline has been attributed to unusually warm waters. Of course there are fluctuations from season to season, and in 2022 Capelin rebounded, though the long-term population outlook for this species in Icelandic waters does not look promising. As capelin move, so do cod, which can bring in additional profits of up to $1 billion annually. Blue whiting are also migrating into Greenland’s waters, and out of reach to Icelandic fishers.

In Iceland, as fish like capelin are migrating north, fish that were previously found farther south begin to move into their waters. Isafjordur, the largest community in Iceland’s Westfjords with around 2,600 residents, is heavily reliant on the fishing industry. Many there are trying to adapt to the changing climate, including adjusting to the diminishing numbers of smelt in the waters available to them. In 2021, in the east of the country, climate change presented a completely new and different threat to the industry. Fishmeal factories had to cope with hydropower supplies being cut because of low water levels. This is an emerging issue that is exasperated as climate change accelerates problems caused by poor land use planning and management around large hydropower projects. At least one fishmeal processing facility had to purchase more expensive oil to generate the electricity they needed for operations.

Fish crossing geopolitical boundaries also produces instability and conflict. Fisheries management is primarily about allocation between stakeholder groups. When fish populations shift dramatically, international treaties and agreements need to be redrawn, and this generates a lot of conflict between parties vying for access.3 Atlantic mackerel fisheries, for example, are co-managed by Norway, the Faroe Islands and the European Union. When Mackerel migrated to Icelandic waters in 2005, that relationship shifted, and conflict over fisheries management spilled over into a trade war. In the case of Iceland, changes in fisheries management and trade negotiations affected Iceland’s decision not to join the European Union.

Negotiations between Iceland and its neighbors over migrating mackerel were never resolved, partly because the fish migrated into waters where Iceland holds exclusive fishing rights. Subsequently Iceland made a unilateral decision to set its own quotas, which it raised generously. This drew criticism from the EU, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Britain as it threatens the sustainability of stocks.

Disputes like these contributed to the cod wars between Iceland and Britain that occurred between the 1940s and 1970s. Resolution only came when Britain backed down on its position after Iceland threatened to leave NATO. These disputes are so profound that a study by Mitchell and Prins (1999)4, calculated that maritime and resource (oil and fishing) claims have been the most frequent catalysts for militarized disputes between democracies since World War II.


1 “Fisheries Iceland.”, Center for Climate Adaptation,

2 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2021, Fisheries and Aquaculture in Iceland,

3 Kendra Pierre-Louis, Warming Waters, Moving Fish: How Climate Change Is Reshaping Iceland, 11/29/2019,

4 Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, and Brandon C. Prins. “Beyond territorial contiguity: Issues at stake in democratic militarized interstate disputes.” International Studies Quarterly 43.1 (1999): 169-183.