What is the disagreement between the EU and the Faroe Islands (really) about?

A school of Jack Mackerel (Trachurus declivis). Fairy Bower, Manly, NSWBy Elin Brimheim Heinesen

A quarter of the total Faroese exports may be affected by the restrictions if the European Union’s sanctions against the Faroe Islands are implemented. This seems like quite severe punishment for a very small and economically vulnerable nation in the North Atlantic, totally dependent on its fishery. But according to the EU – and most international media – the Faroe Islands is an overfishing “Bandit State” that deserves punishment. Is this a fair portrayal of the situation?

The EU claims that the Faroese fishing fleet is overfishing the Atlanto-Scandian herring and mackerel stocks, which fishermen in the EU zone have struggled so much to sustain, so now the EU has been ‘forced’ to take on the ‘honourable’ role as the great defender of sustainable fisheries in the North Atlantic.

– As a consequence of their unacceptable actions, the Faroese must be punished with sanctions until they fall into line, EU commissioner Maria Damanaki says.

This is the official story most people have been presented with in international media. The Faroese disagree strongly with this version of the story, which they claim is only political spin.

– We’re not overfishing, says the Faroese Minister of Fisheries, Mr Jacob Vestergaard, and emphasizes that the Faroese are not trying to push the upper limit of the overall Atlanto-Scandian herring and mackerel quota.

– The Faroese strongly support sustainable fisheries. Of course, we want to fish sustainably, he says. – Fishery is almost our only source of income. And we do not want to cut the branch on which we are sitting. So seen from our point of view the disagreement is not about overfishing. It is solely a fight about the allocation of the current quota. Clearly, the EU does not want to take any of our claims into regard. But according to international law, the EU has no legal right to interfere with fishery regulation policies in our own zone, since our waters aren’t EU-regulated waters. We’re willing to negotiate with the coastal states involved and come to an agreement with them, but nobody seems to want to sit down with us and listen to our arguments for, why we think the Atlanto-Scandian herring and mackerel stocks should be allocated differently between the states around the North Atlantic. Maybe because it would force them to rethink the case, and no one wants to reduce their quotas. So they just choose not to listen. But we are certain that we have a legal, natural and historical right to a larger percentage of the total quota of the Atlanto-Scandian herring and mackerel stocks, says Vestergaard.

A clear breach of international rules and agreements
Chairman for the Republican Party in the Faroes (a party in favour of an independent Faroese Republic, not to be compared with the American Republican Party), Mr Høgni Hoydal agrees:

– Seen from the Faroese side, the announced sanctions are in clear breach of international WTO rules and breach of the Trade Agreement between the Faroe Islands and the EU. The Faroe Islands is doing nothing contrary to international law and practice. According to the UN Law of the Sea Commission, the Faroe Islands have full right to set quotas for catching fish in their own waters. The framework for the sanctions and this act of implementing sanctions on the Faroes is clearly intended to impose economic and trade policy instruments of power into a legitimate conflict between coastal states on the management of migratory fish stocks and allocation of fishing quotas.

– This penalty framework and the possible sanctions will not only be a real problem for the Faroe Islands. It will create asymmetrical negotiation situations for all countries negotiating with the EU about fisheries agreements in the future. It should be a matter of principle for all the Nordic countries to challenge and relate to this. Furthermore, the absurdity, in this case, is that the Atlanto-Scandian herring, which is now used as a justification for sanctions, is not in the EU’s fishing zone and the EU was not initially approved as a coastal state for the Atlanto-Scandian herring. This happened only in 1997 after the EU – without any agreement (!) – had set its own quota unilaterally at 150,000 tonnes, says Mr. Hoydal.

– The EU has no historical right to claim a more extensive share of the total quota than we have, because a nearly non-existent quantity of Atlanto-Scandian herring is swimming in EU waters. And if the EU cares so much about the stock, why haven’t they gone forward showing a good example by refraining, at least from a part of their share? Vestergaard asks.

Not putting up with being used as scapegoats
The current allocation of fishing quotas is based on figures from research made in the mid nineties. Much has changed in these waters since then. The Faroese government says, that recent marine environment research around the Faroes shows that there is much more mackerel and herring in Faroese waters today. This is the reason why the Faroese wanted to increase their share from 5% to 17% of the overall herring quota of 619,000 tonnes.

– But nobody wishes to listen to our arguments. Based on historical reasons as well as on changed biological conditions of life in the waters around the Faroe Islands, we clearly have a right to a larger share of the total quota, says Vestergaard.

– We will not put up with being ignored and used as scapegoat by EU politicians, just because we’re a small nation, all too easy to bully because we’re insignificant in the global perspective. We will fight for our share of the quota to which we are entitled. Nobody wanted to take our arguments seriously, so therefore, we had to put action behind our words, and set our own quota unilaterally – just like the EU did back in 1997. This does not mean that we’re not open to negotiations. But future negotiations about renewed stock allocations must be based on current facts, not on research done more than fifteen years ago.

– The EU claims that the herring is in decline, and that the herring distribution in the North Atlantic is concentrated much further east and north of the Faroe Islands. But our research does not confirm this. We have made scientific research together with Norway and Iceland that proves that large quantities of mackerel and herring have migrated into Faroese waters and that they feed on our fishing grounds where they grow big and fat. We have the full right to make use of these resources, says Vestergaard.

Marine Scientists in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway confirm that global warming has tilted the whole ecological balance in the Northern Seas. Large quantities of mackerel and herring have in later years invaded the Faroese zone, almost displacing other fish stocks, on which the Faroese are very much dependent.

Large quantities of herring in Faroese waters
The Faroese believe that this gives them the legal right to take a larger quantity of the whole quota, despite of what the EU claims about declining stocks, but these EU claims are not based on the latest research, the Faroese counter argument.

As it is, marine research seems to indicate that the ecological balance in the Northern Sea as a whole might be in a critical condition because of exceptionally large quantities of mackerel and herring in the sea north of the Faroes – inside as well as outside the Faroese economic zone – eating away of the plankton and small fishes, other fish species in these waters usually feed on.

The whole system might be about to collapse, as described in these articles:
http://www.nrk.no/nordland/_-vi-styrer-mot-kollaps-i-norskehav-1.11158489, http://www.imr.no/nyhetsarkiv/2013/juli/makrell_over_hele_linjen/nb-no, http://www.imr.no/nyhetsarkiv/2013/juli/norsk_makrellkartlegging_ferdig/nb-no.

This is the latest Faroese research that confirms this:

A Faroese fisherman, who doesn’t want his identity revealed, described the Faroese viewpoint on Facebook as such:

– Seen in the big picture the situation is not sustainable anyway if the mackerel and the herring stocks aren’t regulated more effectively. According to international law we have the right to regulate the stocks in our own waters. The Faroes are NOT a member of the EU. So seen from the Faroese point of view, the EU has no business in trying to regulate fishery in Faroese controlled waters. This whole situation with EU interfering in Faroese fishery regulation policies in our own waters is absurd! Through the latest decades we have managed to regulate our own fishing grounds much better and much more sustainably than so many other coastal states. Our system has been admired worldwide and others have copied our methods. But some countries have done a very good job of emptying their own seas, which probably is why they now want to come after the fish in Faroese waters. These countries are the ones fishing unsustainably, not the Faroese!

Who’s the real bandit
But the Faroes’ counterparts have managed to present a completely different picture of the situation to the public in the EU. The EU claims that the Faroe Islands does not meet the conditions for sustainable fisheries, and therefore, the EU needs to implement sanctions against the Faroe Islands. EU politicians have thus managed to put forward a very simple and clear picture of the situation, which so far seems to ‘sell’ well in foreign media, but is it a true picture? The Faroes are now largely considered to be the ‘Bandit State’ in the public eye in EU with regard to fishing, but is this a fair portrayal? And why is it so important for the EU politicians to make an example out of this case?

The EU Commissioner Damanaki was quite clear at a news conference the other day.

– Fishing must be sustainable, she said – Faroe Islands fishing is not sustainable – therefore EU has to implement sanctions against the Faroe Islands.

The same claim as Damanaki’s was heard a week ago in the message from the Danish Food Minister Mette Gjerskov (who left the ministry due to a cabinet reshuffle this weekend), when she said that even though Denmark does not advocate non-sustainable fishery, the Danish government does not believe it is the right course of action to impose sanctions against the Faroes.

Denmark is caught in a conflict between its obligations as a member of the EU and its obligation towards the Danish Commonwealth, which consists of Denmark, as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland – two autonomous regions under the Danish Commonwealth, that have chosen not to be part of the EU. It seems obvious that in this case, Denmark has chosen to take the EU side, as it would seem to be more advantageous for them – not least for the Danish fishermen.

In the public Danish analysis of the case, which the Danish Food Minister Gjerskov has presented together with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we see that Denmark does not only believe it’s bound to follow possible sanctions that the EU implements, but also that the Danish case is based on the EU notion that the Faroe Islands does not fish sustainably. This is the claim, which forms the whole legal basis for the EU sanctions, but it has no base in reality, according to the Faroese. They are quite disappointed by the Danish vague stance on this matter.

Bogi Eliasen, a Faroese expert in foreign affairs,says:

– Ms. Gjerskov is supposed to be “the Faroese voice” in the EU, but publicly she puts an analysis of the situation forward, which actually is based on the counterparty’s case: that the Faroe Islands do not fish sustainably. The Faroese consider this claim to be untrue and an unfair accusation. In their view the EU is ‘the bandit’ here, because the EU has no legal, historical or natural right to claim a large share of Atlanto-Scandian mackerel and herring, and now they are portraying the Faroe Islands as the ‘pirates’, although the Faroese are in full legal right to do what they do?

The Faroese are loosing the media war
Even though their legal rights are in place, the Faroese seem to be the looser in this ‘war’.

– The world does not consist of law alone, and to be right in a legal sense is not always enough, Eliasen says.

– Although the Faroese – seen from a communication point of view – have a good case, appropriate to communicate to international media, it is only the Damanaki version of the story that fills the media outside the Faroe Islands – to such an extent that it has become a matter of course to call the Faroe Islands a Bandit State. The Faroes’ opponents have managed – with good help from the media – to win the public opinion to their side politically. And when the dominating political systems are supported by the public opinion this way, it can be extremely difficult to resist, even though the Faroese have the legal rights to do what they do.

– Furthermore, when a top politician like Damanaki chooses to go to such an extent to punish the Faroe Islands, and anything else would mean that she would lose face and credibility, yes, it will not always be the applicable rules or justice who have the final say. The Faroe Islands are right, there is no doubt about it – but it doesn’t help to know that, if only the Faroese know that they are right…, says Eliasen.

– This is a good simple populist case for a politician, and so far Damanaki has been able to play this game almost without resistance. The Faroese have not done a good enough job at communicating their version of the story, but they are not the only ones that should be blamed for this, because the Faroes – with their only 48.000 inhabitants – are inherently not as resourceful as the EU. The international press should be much better at analyzing the whole situation, says Eliasen, pointing to the fact that e.g Scottish and Irish fisherman have been caught in large scale cheating over the last decade. – The lack of critical journalistic investigation of the Faroe-EU herring war in international media is blatant, says Eliasen.

– This is the reason why it has become a battle of who is best at using the media to convince the public of who’s right – not about who really IS right. It’s about appearance – who is best at playing the good guys as opposed to the bad guys in the public eye – not about what is fair or not, says Eliasen.

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