BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s fisheries chief said she will decide by the end of the month whether to propose sanctions against Iceland in a row over mackerel quotas, which could see the island’s fishermen banned from landing catches at EU ports.
The warning on Monday by EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki came on the eve of a visit to Brussels by Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who in May suspended Iceland’s bid to join the 28-nation bloc, pending a referendum.
The fishing dispute erupted in 2009 when Iceland - suffering from the collapse of its banking system during the financial crisis - massively increased its mackerel catches to cash in on an increase in stocks in its waters.
That brought it into conflict with the European Union and Norway, which until then had traditionally set catch levels jointly with Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which also faces EU sanctions in the mackerel dispute and in a separate row over herring catches.
“We cannot permit unilateral actions that can destroy the stocks,” Damanaki told reporters after a meeting of EU fisheries ministers in Brussels which ended late on Monday.
“We cannot wait until next year, we have to take action now. But about our concrete actions and what we’re going to do, more information will be provided by the end of this month,” she said.
As well as blocking Icelandic and Faroese fishermen from landing catches at EU ports, the sanctions would also likely include a ban on imports of mackerel and related fish products from both territories, said one EU official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Any sanctions proposed by the Commission would have to be agreed by EU governments, and would likely get strong support from traditional mackerel-fishing nations like Britain and Ireland.
Iceland says its increased quotas are justified by a surge in mackerel stocks in its waters, after the fish began migrating further northwards as a result of warming seas.
In February, Reykjavik cut its mackerel quota for this year by 15 percent compared with 2012, taking the catch to 123,182 tonnes.
But the EU and Norway say that compares with Iceland’s traditional catch of about 2,000 tonnes a year before 2009, and accuse the island of 320,000 people of endangering the health of the North Atlantic mackerel stock.
The dispute has drawn comparisons with the “cod wars” of the 1950s and 1970s between Britain and Iceland. Gunnlaugsson has described possible sanctions by the EU against Iceland as “illegal”.
Reporting by Charlie Dunmore; Editing by Robin Pomeroy