Recycling of fishing gear in Iceland

In Iceland, recycling of fishing gear is both enabled by laws as well as carried and facilitated by voluntary action of the fishing industry.While the government has the power to collect a fee on all fishing gear sold in Iceland to support recycling, this fee is currently waived in favor of an industry led recycling effort. The fishing industry collects and sorts its disused gear and sends up to 90% of it to appropriate recycling facilities.

Dumped codend with garbage

Icelandic waters have been the focus of intense fishing for centuries and since the expansion of the 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Iceland has been one of the most prominent fishing nations in the North Atlantic. Currently about 1600 fishing vessels participate in fisheries in Iceland and landed a total of 1.2 million tons (Hafrannsóknastofnun, 2019). Many of the common commercial gear types known around the world are used by the Icelandic fleet. For demersal species (where cod (Gadus morhua) is by far the most common) bottom trawls, longlines, gillnets, jiggers and demersal seine are in use. By comparison, the pelagic fleet (targeting capelin (Malotus villosus), mackerel (Scomber scombrus), herring (Clupea harengus) and blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou)) uses mainly pelagic trawls and purse seine to harvest its share of around 59% of the total Icelandic catches (by weight). (Hafrannsóknastofnun, 2019). In th following image, the distribution of fishing activity in the Icelandic EEZ can be seen and while there are clear differences in effort between gear types, all gears have a wide geographical distribution.

fiskeriaktivitet bilde
Figure 1 Effort of the fishing fleet in Icelandic waters in 2018 (Hafrannsóknastofnun, 2019)

Almost all coastal communities in Iceland have access to a harbor which has been an important if not major driver for the development of those communities.

After the introduction of the system of transferrable quota the Icelandic fishing fleet has consolidated in fewer ports. The south west region and the capital Reykjavík in particular, has the highest proportion of demersal landings while the east of Iceland has by far the highest landings of pelagic fish. This centralization has also led to larger companies with more efficient fleets tailored to the quota share of those companies. At the same time the services of netmakers have also adapted and have centralized their business at the major ports to service the fleets of a given region.

In the last 20 years, the attitude towards fishing gear as a pollutant has changed quite dramatically. That encompasses both the regulatory environment as well as the self-control and voluntary commitment by the commercial fishing fleet. By law, it is not permitted to abandon lost gear at sea. The loss of gear must be reported to the authorities and vessels will be held financially accountable for the retrieval of the gear (Law 57/1996, art 4).

Fishing gear is among the materials covered by a law aimed at encouraging reuse and recycling in order to remove those substances from the natural environment. The general idea behind the law is to place a recycling fee on a specific material when manufactured or imported which in turn can be used to facilitate recycling at the end of the materials life cycle (Law 162/2002). The fees are to be collected by a special recycling fund that handles the distribution of the recycling fees collected. Iceland as an island nation is in a particular position as all materials for the manufacturing of fishing gear (the same is relevant for any plastic or paper product) have to be imported. In many cases the manufacturing is done abroad. Lines, ropes, and netting are shipped in bulk. In any case, the material has to pass through customs. The law assumes that the recycling fee is taken through the customs number placed on each material. The fee would be around ISK 24 per kg depending on material. Considering that in 2016 about 1165t of fishing gear were sent for recycling, this amount would have generated around ISK 28 million for its recycling on import. This is only a hypothetical number as this fee is currently not collected.

It is possible for appropriate organizations to circumvent the fee if they contractually obligate themselves to the recycling fund to bear the responsibility and organize recycling of a certain group of materials. Such a contract has been in place since 2005 between the recycling fund and Fisheries Iceland (FI), the association of companies in fisheries. Each company in this organization organizes the collection of old fishing gear, the sorting of it and the export to appropriate recycling companies thereafter. With this system it is in the interest of each company to have systems in place that ensure that gear returned, sorted by material and clean according to the standards the recycling company sets. The fishing companies then report the quantities and material type sent for recycling to FI which in turn reports annually to the recycling fund. Smaller companies and boat owners can send their gear to a ship service company in the capital for free as the company is under contract by FI to receive and recycle fishing gear. It is a system that is, beyond contractual obligations, built on trust and the understanding that each company within the organization takes its responsibility seriously. The aforementioned consolidation of the fleet in fewer ports and larger companies also is a factor that should not be underestimated. This has led to almost 90% of collected gear being sent for recycling in recent years. The total amount sent for recycling in 2016 was 1165t of 1297t collected. There are currently no recycling possibilities for rockhoppers and impregnated lines and they have to be sent to landfill. The following table shows a list of all materials collected in 2016 in Iceland and whether they have been sent for Recycling or not.


There are currently two companies receiving recycled gear from Iceland. One in Denmark and another in Lithuania. Coincidentally Hampiðjan, the Icelandic netmaker with global reach, produces most of the netting used in Iceland in a facility in Lithuania.

Recycling fishing gear in general as well as the gear recycling system in Iceland has several challenges. As can be seen above, not all materials can be easily recycled. Since recycling is a business model, companies will hardly specialize in extracting resources from materials where the effort outweighs the profit. This is compounded by developments for netting and lines that consist of a weave of different chemical composition or have a core that is made from a different material compared to the mantel. While they provide better strength and durability, they are harder to recycle and might push the envelope beyond what is feasible for the recycling industry today.

The Icelandic system is based on and functions largely through a system that utilizes the small size of the country and the interconnectedness of people and organizations. It enables self-reporting and discourages black sheep through self-control. Still, the system should be constantly revisited to find areas for improvement and educate its users, so they continue to participate in it. Should the current system of voluntary recycling by the industry fail, there is always the originally intended recycling fee to facilitate recycling of fishing gear in the future.

:  Georg Haney (Marine and Freshwater Research Institute,


Hafrannsóknastofnun (2019). Fisheries Overview;

Law 57/1996;

Law 162/2002;

Fisheries Iceland (2017). Research Utilization and Environmental Footprint;

Published: 26.6.2019