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The Republic of Iceland, northwesterly outpost of Europe, lies in the North Atlantic close to the Arctic Circle. Famed scenically for volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs and geysers, it has little soil, few mineral resources, and only a low cover of vegetation. With such unproductive, and often uninhabitable land, Iceland has the lowest population density of any European country, and much of its economy is based on rich sea fisheries.

Its freshwater resources are also abundant. From a central core of plateaux and mountains, its rivers radiate in all directions to reach the sea, and it has numerous small lakes. Low population and the absence of harmful industrial practices keep its waters virtually without pollution. Iceland has only five native species of fluvial and diadromous fishes, but three of these are valuable salmonids and its Atlantic salmon now provides one of the world's leading sport fisheries for this species.

Its recreational fisheries, the development of ocean ranching for salmon and a growth in aquaculture indicate a bright future.

1.AREA:103 000 km2 
2.POPULATION:254 000 (est. 1990)Density: 2.5 inh/km2

Iceland, the fourth largest island in the North Atlantic, lies between 63°24' and 66°32'N latitudes and 13°30' and 24°32'W longitudes. Its northern coast just touches the Arctic Circle. Its nearest European neighbours are Scotland, 837 km to the southeast, and Norway, 1 000 km to the east. Iceland is 490 km long and 312 km wide. Its coastline is estimated to be from 5 000 to 7 000 km in extent.

Iceland is largely a plateau of volcanic rocks between 600 and 800 m high, broken by faults, and moulded by erosion, abrasion, frost, and other denuding activities. It is indented by fjords and has extensive table lands and mountains. Twenty-seven percent of the country lies below 200 m, 36 percent between 200 and 800 m, and 37 percent over 800 m. The highest point is 2 120 m; the lowest, sea level.

Almost 15 percent of the total area is covered with snowfields and glaciers. The 120 glaciers range from those of cirque type to the large glacier cap of Vatnajökull with an area of 8 400 km2 and depth of 1 000 m. There are about 200 postglacial volcanoes, and more hot springs (some geysers) and solfataras than in any other country in the world. Some of the volcanoes are still active, and at least in one case ash from eruptions has killed salmon parr and smolts. Earthquakes are common. The eastern and western parts of the island (about one-half of the country) consist of basalt separated by a zone of newer, more porous volcanics. The little soil that is present is partly mineral (loess) with a pH of 6–7, and partly organic or bog soil with a pH of 5–6, rich in minerals, but deficient in calcium carbonate. Although suitable for agriculture, the soils generally require heavy fertilization.

With respect to flora, Iceland lies on the border of tundra (treeless plains) and coniferous forest. About one-third of the vascular plants in Iceland are Arctic-Alpine; the remainder are boreal. Only about one quarter of the country has a continuous carpet of vegetation, especially mosses, lichens, and grasses. Its upper level is at about 700 m, while tree line is at about 300 m. The only tree of importance is the birch (Betula). There are extensive moors and bogs.

Indented, except in the southwest, most of the coast varies from large bays and fjords (the result of glacial deepening and widening of eroded river valleys) to the sandy south coast which is backed by shallow lagoons and outwash areas. There are a few small islands or groups of skerries.


The climate of Iceland is cool temperate oceanic - warmer than might be expected because of the proximity of the Gulf Stream - but unsettled from year to year and day to day. Winters are generally long and mild; summers are short and cool.

The mean annual temperature varies from about 3.9° in the north to 5.7°C in the south, with mean monthly ranges of -1.5° to 10.9°C in the north to 1.2° to 11.3° in the south. The warmest month is July with an average of about 11°C; the coldest month is February with an average temperature below 0°C.

The annual precipitation averages 1 400 mm, ranging from an average of 300–400 in the north to 1 500 in the southern lowlands. It is much heavier, about 2 000 mm in the mountains to over 4 000 on the glaciers. The snowline varies from 400 to 1 300 m.

The growing season, based on the average period with temperatures above 3°C between spring and autumn, is about 180 days (1 May–30 October) in the south, and 150 days (15 May–15 October) in the north (Wallen, 1961).

Ice cover is of long duration, e.g., it lasts from October to May or 190 days at Lake Mývatn in northeastern Iceland, where it reaches 70–80 cm in thickness. The southern coasts are rarely frozen but polar ice sometimes piles up against the northern and eastern coasts.

From the end of May until the beginning of August there is perpetual daylight for 24 hours.


The total area of inland water in Iceland is 2 750 km2 or 2.7 percent of the country's area according to Table 2.

Originating from glaciers, direct surface drainage, and springs, the rivers flow in all directions from the interior into the sea. Their average annual run-off is about 1 750 mm or 170 000 million m3 (Van der Leeden, 1975; ECE, 1978).

5.1 Rivers

There are about 250 large and small rivers in Iceland, ranging from 60 to 237 km in length and with flows of about 50–400 m3/s each. The discharges of four of the principal rivers are shown in Table 1.

Icelandic rivers are of three general types. The glacial-fed rivers (okulár) carry large quantities of fine silt (2 000 ppm) and are typically brown in colour. Their runoff, being conditioned by icemelt, is high in the summer and low in the winter, reaching a peak in July–August with daily variations during the warm weather. Glacial rivers are close to freezing at source but warm up considerably in lowland areas. They may freeze over in winter. They typically divide into many interlinked distributaries which constantly change course and pendulate over the outwash plain below the glaciers. Skeiŏará is a prototype.

The direct runoff rivers (dragár), which are relatively clear (e.g., the Grímsá), are characteristic of old basaltic areas where the bedrock is relatively impermeable. They have their greatest flows in the spring during snowmelt and in autumn following heavy rains. The smallest discharge is during winter but there is a secondary minimum during the summer. Floods may occur at any season, and their erosive power is high. Water temperature in these streams generally follows the air temperature. Below the freezing point, anchor ice forms which drifts to the surface and the flow diminishes. Drifting snow may also affect the flow of small streams.

The third type of Icelandic river is the spring-fed stream (lindár) which drains areas covered by permeable postglacial lava fields. In these neo-volcanic zones where the ground is more porous, subsurface drainage is common and the water emerges in springs at lower levels to supply the rivers with an almost constant flow of generally clear water. These spring-fed rivers have a water temperature of 3–5°C at source and never freeze over at that point. Their beds and banks are usually stable.

In general, the rivers, which may be composites of the three basic types (Rist, 1956, 1979), are fast flowing, deep, rugged, and have many natural falls. Europe's largest falls, the 44-m Dettifoss on the glacial Jökulsá á Fjöllum is an example. The streams usually have good spawning areas for salmonids. Icelandic rivers are characterized by low conductivity; the annual average in 10 rivers (listed by Kristinsson and Alexandersdóttir, 1978) ranged from 53.6 to 91.5 micromho/cm at 25°C.

The longest rivers in Iceland are the Thjórsá (237 km), Jökulsá á Fjöllum (206 km), Ölfusá - Hvítá (185 km), and Skjálfandafljót (178 km). Other large rivers are the Jökulsá á Bru, Lagarfljót, Skeiŏrá, and Kúŏafljót.

Table 1

Discharge of four major Icelandic rivers

 Mean monthly discharge, m3/s
River and stationBasin area
Jan.Feb.Mar.Apr.MayJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.Nov.Dec.YearPeriod of record
Thjórsá, Urridafoss7 2002452883113025365455094483683382952633711947–66
Jökulsá, Dettifoss7 0001051101221442182133253452491631281111861939–66
Ölfusá, Selfoss5 7603864173923944013723583403393873973673791950–66
Lagarfljót, Lagarfoss2 800708779941893162151451361381221061411949–66

Source: Unesco (1969)

5.2 Lakes (Vatn)

Iceland has numerous lakes, all relatively small. Fifteen lakes exceed 10 km2 in area and 68 others have an area of from 1 to 10 km2. About 1 200 lakes have a linear extent of 300 m or more (Kristjansson, 1978).

Their origins are diverse. A large number are chiefly tectonic, e.g., the two largest Icelandic lakes: Thingvallatan (84 km2) and Thorisvatn (70 km2). Some lakes have been formed by the deepening of valleys by glacial erosion, e.g., Skorradalsvatn and Lögurinn (53 km2). The well known Lake Mývatn (37 km2) is a basin formed in a collapsed lava flow. Glacier or ice dams have formed some of the lakes, e.g., Graenalón, and such lakes are occasionally emptied beneath the damming ice. Other Icelandic lakes have been formed by rock slides or glacial deposits. Small crater or maar lakes are common in explosion craters. Lagoon lakes are common on the sandy shores, Hóp (45 km2) being the largest of this type and the fourth largest lake in Iceland.

The largest lake in Iceland is Lake Thingvallavatn, 40 km west of the capital, Reykjavík. It has an area of 84 km2, a mean depth of 34.1 m, a maximum depth of 114 m, and a retention time of 290 days. The deepest lake in Iceland is Lake Öskjuvatn, lying in a caldera at an elevation of 1 050 m, and formed after an eruption in 1875. With an area of 10.7 km2, it has a maximum depth of 217 m, a mean depth of 115 m, and a volume of 1 230 × 106 m3. It is probably ice-free for only half the year. One of the best known Icelandic lakes is the fifth largest and highly eutrophic Lake Mývatn, lying at 278 m in the northeast. With an area of 37 km2, this productive lake has a maximum depth of only 4.2 m, a retention time of about 24 days, and an ice-cover of 190 days. Retention times of up to 1 000 days have been calculated for some Icelandic lakes.

In southwest Iceland (aside from Thingvallavatn), there are about 20 good fishing lakes including: Apavatn, Hlióǎrvatn, Kleifarvatn, Hvalvatn, Reyŏarvatn, Langavatn, Hítarvatn, and Oddastaŏavatn. In the northwest, the best fishing lakes are in the Húnavatnsśyslur districts. In the same area as Hóp are Vesturhópsvatn, Svińavatn and Laxáevatn. The Veioivötn lakes in the southeast contain only brown trout.

The chemistry of lake (and river) waters differs somewhat between the basaltic and neo-volcanic zones. In the old basalt areas where water is drained off rapidly it has little chance to react with the mineral phases and is poor in nutrients. In the volcanic zone, groundwater circulation is more effective, is sometimes affected by geothermal activity, and the load of dissolved solids is increased, e.g., at Öskjuvatn there are 850 mg/1.

Both brown trout (Salmo trutta) and char (Salvelinus alpinus) are found in many of the lakes, but some are barren, e.g., Thorisvatn, the second largest Icelandic lake contains no fish (see section 7.1).

5.3 Reservoirs

Although a number of streams and natural lakes have been regulated to produce hydroelectric power, there has been no extensive development of reservoirs in Iceland.


Table 2

Pattern of land use in Iceland, 1986

Arable and permanent crops0.8
Permanent pasture22.1
Forests and woodland1.2
Other land74.0
Inland water2.7

Source: 1987 FAO Prod.Yearb., 41 (Publ. 1988)

About 75 percent of the country is simply unproductive and virtually uninhabitable, being cold and high and consisting of barren snowy mountains, glaciers, lava desert, sands, and other waste lands. As a consequence, habitation is almost limited to lowland coastal areas. Iceland is about 90 percent urban and 10 percent rural. About 40 percent of the people live in the capital and almost all the others in towns and villages around the periphery of the island.

About one quarter of the country is used for grazing and cultivation, but only about one percent of the land is under crops. Hay is the principal and staple crop followed by potatoes and root crops. Grass grows for only four months (May–September), but raising livestock, mostly sheep, and dairy farming based on grass cultivation are the primary land-based industries. A very small amount of water is used for irrigation. Fertilization is necessary in this climate and with Iceland's soils. Artificial fertilization has been increasing rapidly since 1950. The consumption is about 115 kg/ha/year of N and 30 kg/ha/year of P (Olaffson, 1979).

There are no real forests in Iceland. Through wood-cutting, fires, and the advent of grazing livestock, the once extensive birch woods were devastated and destruction of the weak soils followed. Forest practices are primarily to combat erosion rather than to maintain an industry.

Mineral resources are also slight: there is some sulphur, diatomite, pumice, lignite and peat. Effluent from diatomite mining has affected the nutrient chemistry at Lake Myvatn.

The rivers with swift and irregular flow and waterfalls are unsuited for navigation. There are no railroads in Iceland. Automobile road building is increasing. The density of auto roads is 0.12 km/km2, and private automobile ownership is high, about 425 per 1 000 people in 1985. Heavy reliance is placed on internal travel by aircraft.

In 1987, 79 percent (756 000 kW) of Iceland's total installed power capacity of 951 000 kW was hydroelectric. The total hydroelectric potential of the country was estimated by Worldmark (1988) at 7 million kW, of which half would be derived from the five principal glacial rivers. A number of recent authors say that only 6–10 percent of the potential has been tapped. In addition to its abundant hydroelectric resources, Iceland has considerable geothermal resources; in 1987 these accounted for 42 000 kW (4 percent) of installed capacity.

Situated on a platform on the continental shelf, with favourable conditions, such as presence of the Gulf Stream and upwelling, Iceland has rich fishing banks, and for many years marine fishing and fish processing has been its principal industry. About 18 percent of the labour force is engaged in these sectors which account for about one-quarter of the GNP. The per caput consumption of fish is very high, about 88 kg/year (1984).

Any possible decline in the marine fishing industry is now somewhat countered by development of power-intensive industries, such as aluminium smelting and manufacture of ferro-alloys which are assuming a greater portion of the island's economy.

The inland fisheries for salmon, trout and char have always been important to the economy of farmers and have now become an additional source of income through the growth of sport fishing1.

Most of the public water supply comes from underground, primarily from springs. As most of the population is concentrated in coastal areas, most sewage discharges are to the sea rather than into rivers.

With respect to total consumptive water use, it was estimated in 1966 that about 50 million m3 (an amount equivalent to only 0.03 percent of the surface run-off) was withdrawn annually. Of this amount, 80 percent was used municipally and 20 percent for agriculture. The total consumptive use is still very small.

Tourism (about 114 000 in 1986), including special trips for sport fishing, is increasing rapidly.

1 In Iceland, with its small population and northern location, farmers have relied on nature for a subsidiary income, e.g., salmon and trout fishing, egg and eiderdown taking, and seal hunting. All of these activities except fishing have declined


Only five species of fluvial and diadromous fishes are native to Iceland: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), brown and sea trout (S. trutta), char (Salvelinus alpinus), European eel (Anguilla anguilla), and threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). A few Pacific pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) which were planted in the USSR have strayed into Icelandic streams, and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) have been introduced into the Icelandic hatchery system from Denmark.

The Atlantic salmon ascend about 80 rivers in Iceland, the maximum migration being 100 km. They are found in the rivers having the warmest waters during the summers, being found in the greatest abundance in western and southern rivers. Their runs extend from May to October, peaking in July, and spawning occurs from September to December. Most Icelandic salmon migrate into the sea after three years in the rivers (range one to five years), and remain there for one to two years, some for three. A 20 percent oceanic survival of wild smolts to grilse size has been ascertained in some streams, and about 50–60 percent return as grilse, i.e., one-sea-winter fish. Average growth is from 30 g to 2.5 kg in one year and to 6 kg in two years. The largest net-caught salmon was 22 kg, captured in the ocean in 1957. The largest rod-caught (fly) salmon was 17.5 kg from the Hvítá River in 1946. The highest average weight is reached in the river Laxa in Adaldalur in northern Iceland.

Resident brown trout are found in every Icelandic lake containing suitable spawning grounds, and the sea-run form of brown trout is found especially in the southern and southwestern part of the country. Sea trout run from about 0.5 to 2 kg and have been taken to 9 kg in the Skafta River.

Char also have resident and anadromous forms. Resident forms occupy all trout lakes except a group in south-central Iceland; a pelagic form is found in the largest lakes. Sea-run char are found throughout the country, but are most numerous in the colder waters of the north and east. Sea char attain weights of 0.5 to 1 kg and upward to 5.5 kg.

The European eel is found primarily in rivers where sea trout are abundant.

The threespine stickleback is widespread, but has no economic value.

7.1 Capture Fisheries

Table 3 illustrates the catch from Iceland's inland waters for the period 1965–87 as reported in rounded form by FAO (on the original basis of Governmental statistics) and as modified by the author. The modification was necessary because the early FAO Yearbooks of Fishery Statistics (see, for example, Volumes 36 and 40) incorrectly accredited the Icelandic catch of Atlantic salmon and trouts to Marine Statistical Fishing Area 27, the Northeast Atlantic1. This is an obvious error because the salmon fishery of Iceland is limited to rivers. Since 1932 the country has banned fishing for salmon in estuaries and in the sea, even in its territorial waters2. Therefore, in this report both the salmon and trout catch in Iceland have been attributed to the inland fishery just as is now being done in the FAO Fishery Yearbooks and in FISHDAB. (The author is suspicious of the reported “catches” of all trouts - for obvious reasons.)

1 The catch of “freshwater fishes, n.e.i.” in Iceland was listed correctly in these Yearbooks as coming from inland waters. However, as shown in these statistics (and considering its fish fauna) it is obviously small

2 A few farms that had fished in the sea traditionally, mostly by land-connected gillnets, were excepted. However, these farms account for only about one percent of the total Icelandic salmon catch (Isaakson, 1980). Fishing for sea trout and sea char is allowed in the sea, but it is believed that the catch is small

Table 3

Nominal catches in the inland waters of Iceland, 1965–87a (in tons)

Altantic salmon (Salmo salar)
Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Trouts, n.e.i. (Salmo spp.)
Freshwater fishes n.e.i.
Altantic salmon230291225248163147198160217296220 
Rainbow trout-------3012150139 
Freshwater fishes00000000000 

a The Icelandic catches of both Atlantic salmon and trouts during the 1965–75 period were listed incorrectly in Yearb.Fish.Stat.FAO, Vol.36 (1965–73) and Vol.40 (1970–75) as derived from marine statistical fishing area 27, the Northeast Atlantic

0 - Probably nil, negligible or insignificant; or less than 50 t during the 1965–73 period, or less than half a ton during later years.

... not available

Source: 1965–69 Yearb.Fish.Stat.FAO, 36 (Publ.1974)
1970–83 FAO Fish.Dept.Fishery Statistical Database (FISHDAB)
1984–87 Yearb.Fish.Stat.FAO, 64 (Publ. 1989)

It should be noted that the line between “capture fisheries” and “aquaculture” may be somewhat blurred in the secondary references available for Iceland. Thus, for example, salmon smolts may be reared either for stocking rivers (with a hope of return from the sea) or for direct sale, and the disposition or use of the 4.6 million smolts produced by 38 companies in Iceland in 1987 is not made clear by Ackefors (1989). Furthermore, it is obvious that some of the “catches” (e.g., the salmon catch for 1987) recorded by FAO and reproduced in Table 3 are less than those for aquacultural production alone recorded by FAO in Fisheries Circular No. 815, Revision 1 (see below), despite the fact that the records in Table 3 are supposed to include this production. For such reasons, it is probably more important to be concerned with the general trends of Iceland's inland fisheries rather than with some of the details.

Table 4 illustrates the complete catch (in unrounded figures) of Atlantic salmon in Iceland for the period 1963–77 as furnished directly to EIFAC by the Government, supplemented by round figures for the period 1978–87 from FAO.

Table 4

Catch of Atlantic salmon in Iceland, 1963–87

YearNumberWeight (kg)
196338 698143 970
196436 832134 605
196535 707131 597
196628 744105 241
196740 503143 918
196840 785161 368
196935 038133 027
197055 971194 742
197158 874203 704
197265 726249 921
197366 162255 904
197455 913225 069
197574 004265 679
197659 633224 695
197764 575229 747
1978-291 000
1979-225 000
1980-248 500
1981-163 000
1982-147 000
1983-198 000
1984-160 000
1985-217 000
1986-296 000
1987-220 000

Source: 1963–77 - Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, Iceland, April 1979
1978–83 - FAO Fish.Dept.Fishery Statistical Database (FISHDAB)
1984–87 - Yearb.Fish.Stat.FAO, 64 (Publ. 1989)

Iceland's 80 salmon streams have now replaced those of Norway as the finest in the world (see section 9.2 for a listing of some of Iceland's unique advantages with respect to the salmon fishery). The salmon catch is divided between commercial operators (about 30 percent) and sport fishermen (about 70 percent). The commercial fishing with stake nets and gillnets is almost exclusively confined to the three principal watersheds in the southwest which carry such milky silt that sport fishing would be poor.

During the period of 1973–77, the number of salmon caught in the rivers by all fishermen ranged from 55 913 to 74 004 annually. The average annual catch for the period was 64 057 salmon totalling 240 t. The average individual weight of these fish was 3.75 kg. Ísaakson (1980) says that the 50–60 percent of the fish which are grilse average 2.5 kg apiece.

Scarnecchia (1989) states that the average annual angling catch from 1971 to 1980 was 41 700 fish and that the commercial gillnet catch from rivers during the same period averaged 21 500 fish. The total catch in 1987, excluding salmon ranching, was about 45 000 fish. About 34 000 of these were caught by rods; the rest by nets (Isaakson, 1988; Gudbergsson, 1988). During 1987, cage and tank culture produced 490 t of salmon. Note that this is about twice the amount of all the true capture catch in rivers, both recreational and commercial (Scarnecchia, 1989).

Although the streams are relatively limited - runs are often blocked a short distance above the mouth - they are remarkably productive and are supplemented by smolt-planting. As an example, in the Elidaár, a stream within the capital city which is less than 6 m in width and only 6 km long, annually produces about 1 800 salmon weighing as much as 4 t. Fifteen of the 80 rivers produce between 1 500 and 3 500 rod-caught fish each season, and the most productive, the Laxá in Adaldalur produces about 3 000 salmon annually totalling 15 t. Among other major salmon rivers in Iceland are the: Vididalsa, Vatnsdalsá, Nordurá, Thverá, Sog, Langá, Laxá in Laxardalur, Laxá in Leirásveit, Laxá, in Kjós, Grímsa, Haffjardará, Hrutafjardará and Midfjardará.

Circa 1982, the total number of anglers allowed to fish each day for salmon was only about 400 in the entire country; the number of rods per stream is severely restricted. Flies, other artificial lures and bait are permitted. A high percentage of the angling permits go to foreigners, and rates for salmon beats on peak streams at peak season have become very high. Circa 1974, some of them cost US$ 200–300/day. Prices have steadily gone up. Hubert (1982), addressing himself to the North American angler, says: “Salmon fishing in Iceland is expensive. Expect to spend US$ 5 000–6 000 for a week's fishing, airfare and sundry expenses”. In 1988, a lodge on the Laxá in Adaldalur leasing about 11 km of river restricted to seven rods, charged over US$ 5 000 for a week of salmon fishing including guide service and accommodation.

As Mathieson and Gudjonsson (1978) have said: “The salmon fishery in Iceland is predominantly a sport fishery. As such, the prime task of management is not to maximize the yield, as in other fisheries, but to achieve the greatest satisfaction of the angling public…Improved fishing can be achieved by releases of smolts in the naturally producing streams, or in previously barren streams. But the greatest expansion is seen in ocean ranching when the products are in addition to meat also eyed eggs or juvenile salmon and smolts…a recreational fishery for salmon…is economically more rewarding than a direct commercial fishery…” “Ocean” or “sea-ranching” is, of course, dependent upon the release of smolts which will return to the streams as grilse or adults for capture (McNeil, 1973, 1975).

Sport fishing for trout (especially large browns) and char is practiced in both rivers and lakes, but commercial fishing for these species is of minor importance, being carried on in only three lakes. Lake Thingvallavatn has an annual catch (circa 1978) of 3–5 t of benthic char and up to 70 t of pelagic char. Lake Mývatn yields from 10 000 to 100 000 fish/year, an estimated catch of 20 t/year, about 10–15 percent being trout, the remainder char (Jónasson, 1979). Lake Apavatn yields 5–12 t of trout and char annually. Winter fishing through the ice is practiced in some places.

Although most of the other lakes in Iceland are used by their owners to produce fish for home consumption, there is a tendency to lease them for recreational fishing, both to Icelanders and foreigners.

7.2 Aquaculture

Although Iceland is particularly interested in developing its Atlantic salmon fishery to build a larger sports-angler industry and to produce adult fish for commercial sale, development along such lines is primarily a form of “ocean-ranching” - rather than traditional aquaculture where one has complete (or almost complete) control of the “product” from egg to consumable or marketable production. There are now 15 registered ranching stations in Iceland, and in 1988 a total of 180 t of salmon returned to the release sites (Ackefors, 1989).

Although the first hatchery in Iceland (for salmon) was built at Kjós in 1885, and the first rearing station (for sea trout) in 1944, sustained aquacultural production using modern methods is a much more recent endeavour. In fact, interest in true aquaculture did not develop in Iceland until 1984 and it was not until then that the government took a decided interest in its development (Ackefors, 1989). The growth of Iceland's salmon aquaculture can be followed in Gudjonsson (1978) and by reading such journals as Fish Farming International. Suffice it to say that the industry in Iceland employs about 182 persons, working on 106 salmon farms, 19 trout farms, and a mussel farm. Thirty-eight companies produced 4.6 million smolts in 1987 and the production capacity in 1988 was 21.5 million smolts (Ackefors, 1989).

According to FAO Fish.Inf.Data and Stat.Serv. (1989), the production from aquaculture in Iceland during the 1984–87 period ranged from 91 t to 490 t (1987) of Atlantic salmon, and 12 t to 150 t (1976) of rainbow trout, as well as 11 t of brown trout and 3 t of char in 1987. According to FES (1989), in 1988 Iceland raised 1 000 t of salmon, 50 t of large trout, and 100 t of portion trout. This production had increased in 1989 to 8 000 t of salmon, 200 t of large trout, and 200 t of portion trout.

The use of Iceland's warm springs for salmonid rearing is a distinct advantage. In some cases, springs with a water temperature of 10–18°C are used directly; in other cases warm thermal water is used to elevate the temperature of cold springs. Use of heated water permits a one-year rearing cycle through the smolt stage of salmon instead of the two or three years usually required under natural conditions. (Smoltification in Iceland takes from one to five years.)

Aside from geothermal water as an aid to aquaculture, many of the Icelandic fish farms have large outdoor tanks with a continuous flow of water. Seawater is pumped from wells close to shore and filtered through sand and gravel to eliminate bacteria and toxic algae. The productive capacity of landbased farms in Iceland in 1989 was about 2 100 t compared to offshore farms with a production of about 5 500 t (Ackefors, 1989).

Iceland has many other advantages for the development of salmonoid aquaculture (not only salmon but rainbow trout, brown trout, and char are also raised). It has an abundance of unpolluted river water, spring water of good quality and bacteria-free, large areas of land available for producing fish, small protected bays for cages, dissipation of wave-force by offshore skerries, and areas with relatively constant salinities. Tidal ranges indicate that cages rather than sub-littoral enclosures are better in coastal waters.


8.1 Ownership

Fishing rights in Iceland go with the land that adjoins rivers and lakes, i.e., they are privately owned, generally by farmers.

The fishing rights may be leased for use by angling clubs, other groups, or individuals.

8.2 Administration

Although the oceanic fishery stocks are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Fisheries, salmon are administered under the Ministry of Agriculture.

“In 1934 a law was passed which created fishery associations on every river or river system, with the function of managing the local fishery. All holders of the fishing rights on a river became members of the association.”

“The freshwater fisheries law of 1932 provided for a governmental authority for promulgation of regulations of the fisheries…an Advisory Freshwater Fisheries Council…was established in 1933. In 1946 the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries…was appointed. In addition to management of freshwater fisheries at a governmental level, the work of the Institute includes the collection of fisheries statistics, distribution of information and consultation on fisheries matters, besides research on freshwater fishes and their environment, and research on fish cultural techniques.” (Gudjónsson, 1978).

An experimental fish cultural station at Kollafjördur is also operated by the Government under the Director of Freshwater Fisheries.

Aquacultural production licenses are approved by both the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries and the National Centre for Hygiene, Food Control and Environmental Protection.

8.3 Management

The number of rods on each salmon river is determined by the Directorate of Freshwater Fisheries and kept within a reasonable limit to ensure quality fishing. However, on many salmon rivers there is no bag limit and anglers are allowed to retain their catch.

Other methods of management include: establishment of seasonal fishing periods, daily fishing times and number of fishing hours, removal of waterfalls and erection of fishways as an aid to migration, and fish stocking, including its extension to barren waters.


9.1 Yield

The unrefined statistics in Table 3 cannot be usefully employed to determine changes in the state of the several Icelandic inland fisheries. However, with respect to Atlantic salmon the record from other sources (Table 4) clearly shows that perhaps until recently the fishery has not only been sustained, but has increased in total harvest.

Iceland has had official records of salmon catches since 1897. During the period 1887–1909, the average annual catch was 5 168 fish, and from 1910 to 1950 the average annual catch was about 15 000 fish. After that time, the reported catches began to increase to reach about 64 000 fish annually during the years 1970–75. The trend which was upward and generally uniform in most parts of the country was ascribed by Gudjónsson (1978a) to improved catch records and management practices (see section 8.3). In 1981, the catch went down decidedly and was even less in 1982 (see Table 4).

There are few statistics with respect to yield per unit area of either Icelandic streams or lakes. Catch statistics for Lake Stóra Fossvatn show a very high yield of brown trout for a northern country: 20–30 kg/ha/year; and the estimated yield of char from a shallow (average depth 0.8 m), 2.36 km2 lake, East Fridmundarvatn, in 1977 was 16 kg/ha/year1. The average annual yield of salmonids at Lake Mývatn is estimated at 5.36 kg/ha (Jónasson, 1979).

1 Kristjánsson (1978), from whom these figures are derived, cites a comparative yield of 5–7 kg/ha/year of brown trout from Norwegian lakes

Densities of juvenile salmon are considered high as compared with those in other countries; good Icelandic salmon streams produce about 1 000 smolts/ha of nursery area (Isaksson, Rasch and Poe, 1978).

9.2 Factors Affecting the Fishery

Despite its far northern location and limited fauna, Iceland has many advantages over most European countries with respect to inland fishery production. For example, its isolation preserves it from actions by other countries, such as the release of pollutants or erection of barriers to fish migration, which might affect its fisheries2. Secondly, its low population density, relative absence of harmful industrial practices, and abundance of water renders its streams and lakes almost pollutionfree. The average annual runoff per caput amounts to almost 670 000 m3 - an almost unbelievable figure as compared to that in heavily populated and industrial countries. Thirdly, with respect to anadromous stocks, hydroelectric dams have apparently not cut off their spawning grounds or otherwise affected them adversely (T. Gudjónsson, pers.comm., 1979).

2 Fishing equipment and river gear must be sterilized before it is brought into the country by foreign anglers in order to prevent the entry of fish diseases

With specific reference to the maintenance of Atlantic salmon stocks, Iceland has several advantages over most of the other salmon-producing countries:

  1. “The insular position of Iceland and the nature of the surrounding ocean currents effectively…isolate Icelandic salmon stocks against intermingling with foreign stocks” (Mathisen and Gudjónsson, 1978);

  2. the Government does not permit commercial fishing for salmon within its territorial seas which permits assignment of the catch to each individual river;

  3. stream rights belong to individuals or groups who, with the aid of the Government, can control fishing within them;

  4. 50–60 percent of Icelandic salmon return to their rivers as grilse (one-sea-winter fish). These grilse do not migrate as far as two- and three-sea-winter fish, and consequently are not caught in foreign waters. Under such circumstances control of about half of the stocks is primarily in the hands of Iceland. In 1970, it was estimated that escaping salmon, regulated by a closed season as well as a limit on catch and effort, constituted about 50 percent of the returning stock, and

  5. there are a great number of suitable food organisms in Iceland's sea, e.g., capelin (Mallotus villosus), lance fish (Paralepsis sp.), crustacea, and squid.

There are, of course, some unfavourable factors. A number of streams, especially in the northwest, are too short, steep, and cold to promote salmon propagation, and others are too silty for good fish production. There have been deterrents to fish migration on some waters. Cooling down of the sea by drift ice from the Arctic Ocean, and even fall of volcanic ash are other factors which at times have been blamed for diminished salmon production.

9.3 Prospect

As has been emphasized above, several rather unique geographical, political, economic and biological factors contribute to the maintenance of good salmonoid stocks in Iceland. Given continuance of these advantages, as well as perennial recognition that the inland waters should be preserved from the adverse effects of development, the inland fisheries should continue to prosper.

For over a thousand years, Iceland has placed heavy dependence upon both its marine and freshwater fisheries for food - it has the world's highest per caput consumption of fish - and profit. If its marine fisheries decline, greater emphasis will be placed on the development of power-intensive industries, such as aluminium smelting. This will, of course, lead to more hydroelectric installations (there are at least 90 potential sites for these in Iceland) whose effects on fisheries necessitate ecological considerations to minimize their extent. (In this regard it is of interest to note demands by the local population for ecological investigations of Lake Mývatn and the River Laxá area in view of plans to convert the upper 50 km of the river into reservoirs (Jónasson, 1979).

Future developments in inland fisheries in Iceland also embrace: greater emphasis on both commercial and sport fishing in lakes, carefully designed management to ensure high quality recreational fishing for salmon and greatly augmented production through ocean ranching, as well as increased rearing of cultivated salmonids. In fact, with respect to Icelandic exports in 1987, the National Economic Institute, Reykavik (1988) said that the largest growth was recorded in aquaculture.


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