Figuring fish and measuring men: the individual transferable quota system in the Icelandic cod fishery

Gísli Pálsson*, Agnar Helgason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Citations (Scopus)


This article discusses inequality in the Icelandic cod fishery, focusing on changes in the actual distribution of fishing quotas and the ways in which Icelanders currently talk about equity and ownership. The individual transferable quota (ITQ) system, introduced in 1984, divided access to an important resource among those who happened to be boat owners at that time. Statistical findings with respect to the cod fishery - based on a database (the 'Quotabase') constructed using detailed information on all vessels that have been allotted ITQs from the onset of the system - show that ITQs have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the biggest companies. Many of the small-scale boat owners that still hold ITQs are increasingly compelled to enter into contracts that involve fishing for larger ITQ holders. It is suggested that the distribution of ITQs, as well as their evaluation in social discourse, represents an important field of research. In Iceland, public discontent with the concentration of fishing rights and the ensuing social repercussions is increasingly articulated in terms of loaded metaphors, including 'profiteering', 'tenancy' and 'lords of the sea'. It is argued that the ultimate efficiency of management programs may be jeopardized if managers ignore the history and culture of the fisheries involved and the likely social and ecological consequences of their programs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-146
Number of pages30
JournalOcean and Coastal Management
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - 1995

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries for providing much of the raw data used in constructing the 'Quotabase'. The present study is part of two larger, collaborative research projects, 'Common Property and Environmental Policy in Comparative Perspective', initiated by the Nordic Environmental Research Programme (NERP), and 'Building Resilience, Equity, and Stewardship into Market Approaches to the Resolution of Common Property Problems', funded by the Beijer Institute of the Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm, coordinated by Susan Hanna. The research on which the article is based has been supported by several other programmes and institutions, including the Nordic Committee for Social Science Research (NOS-S), the University of Iceland, the Icelandic Science Foundation, and the Post-Graduate Research Fund of the Icelandic Ministry of Education. Some of the data and conclusions presented in this article are also discussed in 'Property rights and practical knowledge: The Icelandic quota system', published in Fisheries Management in Crisis: A Social Science Perspective, ed. D. Symes & K. Crean, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1995. A brief version of the article was presented at the Annual Science Conference of The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea in St. John's, Newfoundland, 22-30 September 1994. The authors thank anonymous reviewers for useful suggestions and comments on an earlier version of the article.


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