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Conservation Systems of Iceland

Kelsi Potterf
CSS 493
21 April 2015
Country Project

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Areas of high biodiversity, such as tropical rain forests, tend to attract the focus of
conservation efforts. There are many places that are often considered to be lacking biodiversity,
but what little biodiversity exists, is vitally important to the persistence of native, breeding, and
migratory species as well as humans. One such place is Iceland. Though biodiversity of native
animals has been historically low, in attempts to sustain themselves, the Icelandic people have
dramatically altered the landscape over thousands of years (Arnalds 2004). Approximately
93.7% of the population resides in urban areas where the population of 317,351 people is
supported by an island slightly smaller than Kentucky (Europe: Iceland 2014). Even though the
density in urban areas are high, at 3 people per square kilometer, Iceland is the most sparsely
inhabited European country (Thrhallsdttir 2007). Urbanization is increasing by 1.27% to
support the 0.65% population growth rate in this democratic society (Europe: Iceland 2014).
Poor management strategies and resource extraction in the past are becoming a concern as soil
erosion and desertification have increased dramatically and species of seabirds have declined
In the last 50 years, environmental consciousness has encouraged the government of
Iceland to take measures to prevent air pollution and persistent organic pollutant creation, protect
biodiversity, reduce the effects of climate change, support the Kyoto Protocol, reduce
desertification, support endangered species, and reduce hazardous wastes (Biological Diversity
of Iceland 2001, Europe: Iceland 2014). Iceland has also supported the Law of the Sea, reduction
of marine dumping and marine ship pollution, wetland and ozone layer protection, and now
prohibit whaling (Europe: Iceland 2014) in attempts to reduce not only their local impact on the
environment, but their global impact as well.

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To mediate and implement many of the projects and goals inspired by this awareness,
many groups within Iceland have formed, both government based and non-government based, to
protect and restore the natural resources. The following organizations are just some of those
active in the country with mission statements that can range from very specific to very broad in
scope (Arnalds 2004, Hamilton and Otterstad 1998, IINH):

Icelandic Institute of Natural History

Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds

Marine Research Institute

Institute of Biology, University of Iceland

Icelandic Forest Service

Agricultural University of Iceland

Institute of Freshwater Fisheries

Icelandic Ministry of Agriculture

Nordic Council of Ministers, AFFORNORD

Soil Conservation Service

Icelandic Forestry Association

Icelands Rural Development Institute

Ministry of the Environment

Many of these organizations work together to achieve their goals at a local or national level,
while other major players work together in international and global conventions. The main goals
for conservation within Iceland are the restoration and afforestation of degraded lands, creation
of terrestrial and marine protected areas, and the production of sustainable energy. Due to the

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nature of Icelands animal biodiversity, some unique challenges have been placed on the
management of the native and non-native fauna persisting there. This will be examined in a case
study involving the harvest and management of seabirds.
Restoration and Afforestation
Overgrazing and birch woodland clearing between the 14th and 16th centuries to support
the production of sheep have caused large scale soil erosion issues and desertification (Arnalds
2004). Through extensive local involvement, revegetation of sand dunes with grasses and
afforestation with Siberian larch under AFFORNORD, Iceland aims to reduce erosion, increase
jobs, boost the economy through forestry practices, and diversify lifestyles and environments
(Halldorsson et al. 2008). Conifer plantations also increase carbon sequestration and increase the
biodiversity of flora and fauna (Halldorsson et al. 2008). Iceland has currently halted
deforestation and aims to increase forest cover from 1.5% to greater than 5% (Halldorsson et al.
2008). Restoration has been driven largely by (Aradttir et al. 2013):

Farming and wood products in the 1900s

Infrastructure and aesthetics in the 1960s and 1970s
The United Nations Climate Change Convention in 1990
Erosion and desertification in the 2000s
Currently 6 Farm Afforestation Programs are responsible for 65% of all plantings and are

funded by the National Soil Conservation Programme [NSCP], Retailers Association and
stakeholder donations (Arnalds 2004). The NSCP and other organizations provide a total of
approximately $7 million US dollars (Arnalds 2004). This amount is not considered large
enough, and because it is difficult to raise enough money through taxation of a small population,
government incentives have been provided for farmers to meet quality standards (Arnalds 2004).

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Protected Areas
Some species have a significant portion of their entire world population residing in
Iceland (IINH), and while the terrestrial animal diversity in the country may be low, this area
supports high amounts of marine biodiversity due to the mixing of warm Atlantic and cold Arctic
waters near their shores (Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001). To protect this resource, the
Icelandic government has put in place a network of marine protected areas that can be
temporarily closed during spawning seasons or permanently closed, in addition to quotas and
regulations, to protect juvenile fish (Jaworski et al. 2009). Due to the tendency for fisheries to
suffer from being a common good, Individual Transferable Quotas [ITQs] have been proposed as
a conservation measure to solve the tragedy of the commons by commanding high market prices
(Hamilton and Otterstad 1998). Hamilton and Otterstad (1998) suggests that ITQs could allow
fisheries to support the government and but the industry must be diversified to do so.
Though marine ecosystems are highly productive here, productivity of rivers and lakes
can vary greatly depending upon landscape and aquatic features (Biological Diversity of Iceland
2001). Fish farming has been introduced as a way to supplement the fishing industry, however
there is some concern over the threat to natural fish populations by water pollution and
competition by escaped individuals (Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001). This threat will need
to be evaluated in the future, however, presently the economic growth of Iceland is largely due to
the fishing industry (Europe: Iceland 2014) so this supplement to the industry cannot be
abandoned at this time.
While marine protected areas are in place to conserve biodiversity, most of the terrestrial
protected areas are in place to protect geological diversity, or geodiversity (Arnalds 2005).
Iceland contains rare geological structures such as hyalocalcite mountain ridges and table

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mountains that are often tied to highland folklore and given high cultural value (Thrhallsdttir
2007). Geodiversity is defined as the, complex variation of bedrock, unconsolidated deposits,
landforms, and processes that form landscapes (Arnalds 2005). With the Nature Conservation
Act of 1956, 10 protected areas were created, 7 of which were mainly for protecting geodiversity
(Arnalds 2005). There are presently 125 protected areas that conserve 20% of Iceland (Table 1);
the proportion of these purely for the protection of geodiversity is unknown. Additionally, three
wetlands in Iceland have been enlisted in Ramsar to protect the remaining birch woodlands, the
only native tree species that has dramatically declined with land clearing for grazing purposes
(Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001). The Ministry of the Environment and IINH expressed
their plans to continue creating protected areas in the Biological Diversity of Iceland (2001),
provided to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Table 1. A comparison of conservation concern and initiative between the United States and
Iceland compiled from Homepage-UNEP-WCMC (2014).

Estimated Biodiversity Loss

Number of Protected Areas
Percent Protected Areas
Carbon Storage (Mt)
Carbon Storage in Protected Areas
CITES Listed Species
CITES Imports
CITES Exports
Energy Resources

No Results
No Results

Mostly Invertebrates
Mostly Turtles

Development of energy resources has not been well represented in the literature. Though
most of the current publications evaluate restoration efforts and protected areas, Iceland has
excellent opportunity for sustainable hydroelectric and geothermic energy production. However,
these developments do not come without their costs. In the assessment of the Icelandic

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Framework Plan for the Use of Hydropower and Geothermal Energy, Thrhallsdttir (2007)
determined that hydroelectric energy types have a higher impact than geothermal developments.
Approximately 40% of hydroelectric projects are estimated to score above a 4 out of 10
on an impact scale, as hydroelectric sites are likely to have higher environmental and cultural
value (Thrhallsdttir 2007). This compares to only 10% of geothermal energy projects scoring
above 4 on the impact scale (Thrhallsdttir 2007). Geothermal sites are likely to have higher
landscape and wilderness values than hydroelectric sites (Thrhallsdttir 2007). The largest issue
appears to be the addition of infrastructure to areas of high intrinsic value. The Master Plan for
Hydropower and Geothermal Development, combined with habitat mapping and assessment of
Icelandic highlands, are currently being used to assess conservation value of the landscape,
vegetation, and wildlife (IINH) to prevent development on a highly valuable site.
Case Study: Seabird Management
Protection and conservation used to be focused more on areas, however it is now
becoming more focused on the conservation of species (Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001).
While 238 plant species are IUCN Red Listed in Iceland, only 31 are considered protected
(Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001) and are at risk from the many introduced plant species
(Arnalds 2004). Seventy two species birds nest in Iceland, while the only native mammals
represented are the Arctic fox and the wood mouse (Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001). Aside
from the occasional polar bear from drifting sea ice, which are now protected by law and
relocated upon arrival, all other mammals have been introduced (IINH). These introductions
consist of mink, rats, Norwegian breeding stock of reindeer, other mice species, and escaped
domestic stock (IINH). While the hunting of seals, seabirds, and mink area allowed, other
animals such as fox, reindeer, whales and wood mouse are protected by law (Biological

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Diversity of Iceland 2001). Though the accidental introduction of mink has degraded waterfowl
and wetland bird populations (Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001) resulting in a bounty placed
on their pelts, nothing has been as detrimental on bird populations as the unmanaged hunting by
After the great auk was last seen in Iceland in 1844 before becoming extinct worldwide
(Biological Diversity of Iceland 2001), the government and its citizens became more concerned
with uncontrolled hunting of seabirds. Seabirds have been hunted for meat, feathers and eggs
since the colonization of Iceland by humans, and though controls have been put into place since
the 11th century to prevent overharvest, seabirds have been overexploited into the 19th century
due to a lack in governance (Goldstein 1991). Because Iceland serves as stopover and breeding
habitat for many migratory birds between Canada and Europe, the Icelandic Institute of Natural
History places the monitoring of birds at high priority and have been organizing bird banding and
population monitoring since 1952 (IINH). Seabirds were considered a public commodity and
suffered from the tragedy of the commons similar to the highland grazing areas and fisheries
(Goldstein 1991).
Commercialization of seabird populations through market incentives and limited
government regulation have been uitilized to reduce overharvest (Goldstein 1991). While the
government plays an important role in enforcement, protection and penalties, property rights are
fundamental to the management and enforcement of seabird populations (Goldstein 1991).
Nesting areas are currently privately owned and hunting rights can be rented to the public
(Goldstein 1991). This promotes responsible management and the enforcement of bag limits set
by the land owner and promotes conservation at a local level (Goldstein 1991). Governmental

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controls and self-imposed husbandry practices used to decrease overharvest have allowed for the
rebound of many species in Iceland (Goldstein 1991, IINH).
Though there are many effective tools in place for Iceland to manage and conserve their
resources, there are many organizations and institutions continuing research of new and
successful methods for land and biodiversity preservation. The Icelandic Institute of Natural
History, in cooperation with organizations such as the Icelandic Forest Service, Agricultural
University of Iceland, and the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, study the impact of invasive
species, influence of airborne metals on biota, long term effects of climate change, and wildfire
on the native species and landscape (IINH). Iceland is still facing environmental issues such as
water pollution from fertilizer runoff and inadequate wastewater treatment (Europe: Iceland
2014) that has not been adequately assessed by environmental publications.
There may also be some legislative conflicts between development and conservation. For
example, policies addressing environmental modification and marine life conservation have been
signed but have not been ratified (Europe: Iceland 2014). It is possible that these policies have
not been signed due to the dependence on energy development and a variety of marine resources.
This legislation could also conflict with restoration and afforestation projects, as well as further
restrict citizen access to marine resources outside marine protected areas. While the economy
will continue to be supported by Icelands fisheries, hydropower, and geothermal power (Europe:
Iceland 2014), tourism based around exploring Icelands natural features has become the fastest
growing market and provides 5% of the overall GDP (Thrhallsdttir 2007). Years of
environmental degradation are beginning to be counteracted by the development of sustainable
management strategies. Iceland provides a great opportunity to study the response of the
landscape and biodiversity to various restoration and sustainable energy projects, in the hopes

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that successful methods of restoration and management in Iceland will be adopted by other
countries as well.

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Literature Cited
Aradttir, A. L., Petursdottir, T., Halldorsson, G., Svavarsdottir, K., & Arnalds, O. (2013).
Drivers of Ecological Restoration: Lessons from a Century of Restoration in Iceland.
Ecology & Society, 18, 33-47.
CONSERVATION IN ICELAND. Land Degradation & Development, 16, 113-125.
Biological Diversity of Iceland. (2001). National Report to the Convention on Biological
Diversity, 1-58.
Europe: Iceland. (2014). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from
CONSERVE BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY. Environmental Law, 21, 985-1014.
Halldorsson, G., Oddsdottir, E., & Sigurdsson, B. (Eds.). (2008). AFFORNORD-Effects of
afforestation on ecosystems, landscape and rural development. Nordon, 1-123.
Hamilton, L., & Otterstad, O. (1998). Demographic Change and Fisheries Dependence in the
Northern Atlantic. Human Ecology Review, 5, 16-22.
Homepage - UNEP-WCMC. (2014). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://www.unepwcmc.org/#?country=US&dashboard=show
Jaworski, A., Solmundsson, J., & Ragnarsson, S. (2010). Fish assemblages inside and outside
marine protected areas off northern Iceland: Protection effects or environmental
confounds? Fisheries Research, 102, 50-59.
The Icelandic Institute of Natural History [IINH]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from

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Thrhallsdttir, T. E. (2007). Environment and energy in Iceland: A comparative analysis of
values and impacts. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 27, 522-544.