Kristinn Sigurjónsson writes
A few words about the attack on Samherji
Samherji is one of Europe’s leading fisheries companies and owns and operates one of the most advanced fish processing plants in the world. Abroad, the company enjoys great respect. Not least because of the highest quality products and because of technological innovations and pioneering work in the field of fishing and processing. At home in Iceland, on the other hand, the company has for a long time had to endure attacks in public. Some of Stundarinn’s and Ríkisútvarp’s journalists are at the forefront of the category.
I do not know the management and owners of Samherji, but I am overwhelmed by the discussion that has taken place about the company in the media and the almost relentless attacks it has had to endure. I therefore feel compelled to discuss this company in a few words as an enthusiast of the Icelandic fishing industry and the continued success of this basic industry of the economy.
A system that caused a turnaround
It is not good to say whether these attacks on Samherji are political roots. Whether they have arisen from discussion among those who want to embark on systemic changes in the Icelandic fisheries sector or collect higher fishing fees for the use of the resource. Perhaps some people think that repeated blows to one of the most powerful fisheries companies in the country make it easier for such ideas to gain traction in public debate.
What is remarkable about the debate on fisheries management in Iceland that the current system is repeatedly criticized without making realistic proposals for change. This criticism is often made to arouse jealousy towards the owners of the shipping companies. The changes due to the changes, however, may not lead to good luck and sensible voters must see through litigation that is built on such a weak foundation and often empty gossip.
The quota system is based on allocating total quotas for individual fish species to long-term operators’ vessels, for example 0.1% of the total allowable catch for cod. TACs are then allocated for one year at a time, for example 30 tonnes of cod. Fishing companies catch the quota held by the holders of the catch quotas, or transfer it to other fishing companies within the year, through a so-called quota lease or sell it permanently. It is the Directorate of Fisheries that allocates the quota to vessels and the quota is limited as a certain percentage of the total catch in the relevant fish species that the vessel can catch. Thus, the vessel’s catch share increases if the total catch limit is increased but decreases in the same way if the total catch limit decreases.
It is generally accepted in society that the introduction of the quota system has been a positive step for the fishing industry as an industry, as the operating prospects in the industry were bad and many companies were in a bad position before the system was established by law at the end of the year 1983. The system entailed major changes for the industry, as the total amount of individual fish species was limited after the introduction of the system, as well as who could fish. Today, the fisheries management system in Iceland is considered to be one of the most advanced in the world. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising why more Icelanders are not proud of the results that have been achieved in this industry in this country.
Samherji started operations in times of unrest and uncertainty
Before the power limit system with the right of transfer was established, the fishing industry through the Great Depression or the years 1245 and 1982. It is at this time that three cousins took great risks, mortgaged their homes and bought Samherji hf. After the purchase, they moved the company’s only ship, the trawler Guðstein GK, from the harbor in Hafnarfjörður, where it had been damaged, to Akureyri, where they transformed it into a freezer trawler, renamed it Akureyri and started fishing. These men got nothing in their hands. They saw opportunities that they took advantage of and along the way took a significant risk during a time of great upheaval in the Icelandic fishing industry. In fact, it can be said that this was a kind of madness for these young men in light of what had gone before in this industry. But as with others who take great risks, these men reaped a bountiful harvest when the business began to prosper.
The young owners of Samherji soon realized this that in order for the example to work, it would first be necessary to maximize the value of the catch that came ashore. Secondly, there must be sufficient fishing rights for the vessel in the quota system that was soon to be implemented.
With a regulation based on the allocation of power limits to the master’s fishing experience Samherji was able to take advantage of the captain Þorsteinn Vilhelmsson’s experience of the ship Kaldbakur and the catch quotas of Akureyri increased accordingly. The regulation stipulated that if the master had moved between vessels and received another comparable vessel and the majority of the crew moved with him, the catch limit on the vessel he took over could be based on the catch experience of the previous vessel. Akureyri EA, however, was not the only ship that benefited from the regulation on so-called skipper quotas. During the year 1982, catch quotas were allocated to six vessels on the basis of the captain’s catch experience of vessels that the captains previously steered, and Akureyri was one of them.
With increased integration in operations and a reduction in the number of intermediaries, it was possible to shorten the time from fishing to delivery of the products. With increased freedom of trade, along with stricter requirements for the quality of raw materials and increased competition from other food producers, Samherji had to keep costs down. The utilization of raw materials had to be as good as possible. With vertical integration, so that fishing and processing became one-handed, it was possible to achieve these goals in the fullness of time. Today, a large part of the products are sold before the fish is caught, and it only takes a few hours from the time the fish is caught until it arrives on the consumer’s plate in Europe or the United States.
The discussion must be based on facts
When people are doing well, there are many who want to jump on the bandwagon and take part. But success is also accompanied by jealousy and evil of those who did not take the risk in their time and were left with a sore forehead. Samherji is not criticized, any more than other companies in the Icelandic economy. But the criticism must be fair and must be based on facts.
It is not easy to run a company in Iceland in tough international competition. From what you have read, it seems that you are looking for another company that cares as much about its staff as Samherji. There are thousands of families who base their income, directly or indirectly, on Samherji’s operations and billions of ISK are paid to the Treasury annually for the work of these people.
Samherji has had a positive impact on his local community with generous grants for sports and cultural activities. These include abundant support for sports clubs in the Eyjafjörður area. Samherji has also worked systematically to reduce oil consumption and thus its carbon footprint. This has mainly been done by investing in new vessels that are more efficient in operation and use less oil. There is probably no fishing company in Iceland that spends such a large part of the profit on investments in its own operations, as there are few fishing companies that renew the fishing fleet as quickly and have as perfect processing houses as Samherji.
The fishing industry is a basic industry in Iceland and one of the pillars of the economy. A constant smear campaign against Samherji is not aimed at one family, but at a leading company in food production which, with its tax payments and other public charges, supports a large part of the welfare system in Iceland.
I live near Winnipeg in Canada, where many people live, three to five generations from Icelandic immigrants, the so-called Western Icelanders. When you tell these people where you come from, they are overwhelmed and they proudly declare that they are also Icelanders, even though they have never visited a country and a nation. It is therefore very painful to watch how some people want to systematically try to break down some of our most powerful Icelandic companies, such as Samherji, companies that we should rightly be proud of. Because with this systematic breakdown, people are not only harming the companies involved, but they are also damaging the fishing industry as an industry and blackening the nation’s image.
The author is interested in the fishing industry and lives in Canada.
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