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Nature protection and biodiversity (Iceland)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Nature Conservation and Protection against the loss of Biodiversity

The purpose of the Act of Nature Conservation is to direct the interaction of man with his environment so that it harms neither the biosphere nor the geosphere, nor pollutes the air, sea or water. The Act is intended to ensure, to the extent possible, that Icelandic nature can develop according to its own laws and ensure conservation of its exceptional or historical aspects. The Act shall facilitate the nation's access to and knowledge of Icelandic nature and cultural heritage and encourage the conservation and utilisation of resources based on sustainable development.

Nature conservation and actions for protection against loss of biodiversity in Iceland covers protection of species, ecosystems and habitats and it also covers protection of diverse landscape, i.a. natural phenomena, geological formations that are unique, of outstanding beauty or scientific interest and extended wilderness (1).

Birds are a significant part of the visible Icelandic fauna. The number of nesting species are around 75. For some of the species, the national population size may be so large that the Icelandic population is a significant part of the European or even the world total population. Iceland is thus an important breeding ground world‑wide for some bird species. For 16 species the Icelandic population is 30 % or more of the total European population. Thus, Iceland is responsible for actions to achieve favorable conservation status to protect these species and their habitats (2).

Ecosystem services

According to surveys conducted by the Icelandic Tourist board, the vast majority, or over 70 % of foreign tourists come to experience the Icelandic nature. Number of foreign visitors were about 300 000 in 2000 and around 500 000 in 2008 and 2009. The share of tourism in Iceland´s total export revenue was 16.9 % in 2008 (3).

The economically most important country-specific benefits of ecosystem services is the exploitation of the marine biota. In 2009, the total catch in Icelandic waters was close to 1.1 million tonnes of fish products worth of ISK 115 billion in export value and this weighs considerably in the nation’s foreign currency earnings (42 % of merchandise exports, roughly 28 % of total exports in 2007). The fishing industry is still fundamental for the whole economy and the country’s regional development. Future establishment and extension of marine protection areas is under disscussion (4).


The productive rivers and lakes are an important amenity for recreational activities. Salmon and trout fisheries have been of high economic value in Iceland since the initial settlement. The economic importance of salmon and trout fishing rights varies depending on region, but contributes as much as 50 % of the total income for residents in productive salmon areas.



(1) Welfare for the Future. Framework for sustainable development in Icelandic society. Priorities 2006-2009. Report in English.

(2) State of the Environment. Report in Icelandic.

(3) Tourism in numbers, feb 2010. Report in Icelandic.

(4) Comittee report on marine protection areas. Report in Icelandic.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Most of the land‑based species have colonised Iceland from northwestern Europe during the postglacial time, or in the last 11 000 years. About one-third of the vascular plants may be characterised as Arctic-Alpine, while about half of the species are Boreal. Endemic species are few and there are only two known species of chironomids (1) and two known species of subterranean freshwater amphipods in Iceland. In addition, some geothermal microorganisms are only found in Iceland (2). A small number of species has been explained by climate and isolation i.e. a long distance from continental Europe (3). Contrary to the land, the marine biota is characterised by species richness and high productivity. Iceland is on a crossroads between east and west and Arctic and the temperate latitudes (2). The number of species found in Iceland within selected groups of organisms is shown in figure 1.

 Groups of organisms

Number of species


Land (7) and sea mammals



Nesting birds



Fresh water (7) and marine species, within the economic zone



 ca. 1290


Acari not included



 Clams and snails

ca. 500

Other invertebrates

Such as Hydrozoa, Echinoderms, Polychaeta, Nematoda et.c.


Vascular plants

Angiosperms and ferns










Figure 1. Number of species within selected organism groups.


Nature conservation

Almost 100 sites, with a total area of 2 000 000 ha (in this figure, glaciers and marine areas are included) (Figure 2), are protected in Iceland under the terms of Nature Conservation act, or by other laws.

Figure 2. Trend in number and total size of protected areas in Iceland since 1960

Figure 2. Trend in number and total size of protected areas in Iceland since 1960.

Protected areas for Nature Conservation are classified as National Parks, Nature Reserves, Natural monuments on land and at sea, Country parks and Areas protected by special law.

Nature Reserves

Nature reserves may be established in areas considered important of their landscape, flora or fauna.

National Parks

National parks may be established in areas considered outstanding in landscape, flora or fauna, or having special historic significance.

Natural monuments on land and at sea

Natural monuments are natural phenomena that are unique, of outstanding beauty or scientific interest. These include waterfalls, volcanoes, hot springs, rock pillars, fossils and minerals.

Country parks

Country parks are areas protected upon request of local government and mandated by them. The parks are primarily intended for recreational purposes and open to the general public.

Areas protected by special law

Þingvellir National park and world heritage site. Lake Þingvallavatn and the watershed, Lake Mývatn and the river Laxá region, Breiðafjörður and Vatnajökull National Park

Three wetland areas are designated Ramsar Areas: Mývatn-Laxá, Þjórsárver and Grunnafjörður, and three new Ramsar sites are suggested for designation.

 Figure 3. Map of protected areas in Iceland in 2009

Figure 3. Map of protected areas in Iceland in 2009.

Red list

Redlists are lists of indigenous species that are under threat of extinction in any country or area. The threat is ranked into classes from critically endangered to lower risk.

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History (Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands) has published two lists for plants and birds. 52 vascular plant species, 67 lichen species, 74 species of moss and 42 marine algae species are on the plant list and about 32 breeding birds are on the birds list (2)



(1) Hrafnsdottir, Th. 2005. Diptera 2 (Chironomidae). The Zoology of Iceland III, 48b: 1-169.

(2) State of the Environment. Report in Icelandic.

(3) Gísli Már Gíslason, 2005. Origin of freshwater fauna of the North-Atlantic islands; present distribution in relation to climate and possible micration routes. Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 29 (1): 198-203.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The main driving forces are connected to the changes in social, demographic and economic developments. Demographic development may be regarded as a primary driving force, whose effects are, translated through related land-use changes, urbanisation, agriculture, industrial developments and the energy industry.

Ecosystem and habitat degradation by reduced woodland, soil erosion and draining of wetlands by dredging are inherited drivers from past generations in Iceland. Drivers of today are 1) Drivers connected to transport, constructions and utilisation of energy and marine resources, 2) Global drivers as Climate Change, Long-range Transported Contaminants and 3) Drivers connected to red‑listed species and of invasive alien species (1).



(1) Biodiversity. Report in Icelandic.

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The Icelandic government approved a strategy on Biological Diversity in August 2008 (1). The strategy paper lists 27 steps (actions) to achieve ten goals. Five threats to Biological diversity in Iceland are also listed in the strategy paper: 1) Climate Change, 2) Non-sustainable resource management, 3) Ecosystem and habitat degradation 4) Pollution and 5) Invasive alien species

The ten goals are:

1. Increased scientific research, registering and mapping of natural history. Data collected and stored in accessible databases.

2. Monitoring plans and programmes, and information systems, for biodiversity.

3. The targets of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are to be incorporated in the Nature Conservation Strategy (2009-2013).

4. Marine Protected areas designated to ensure long-term maintenance of sustainable ecosystem services, ecosystems and populations.

5. Laws and regulations on import, distribution and cultivation of species with the potential to impose threats to biodiversity (invasive alien species) will be revised.

6. Reclamation and restoration of habitats and ecosystems degraded by land use and construction. The goal is to protect Biodiversity and promote sustainable land use and ecosystem services.

7. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety under CBD will be legally ratified and an implementation plan prepared.

8. Conservation of genetic (and cultural) resources in agriculture.

9. Increased Information Services and education on Biodiversity.

10. International Indicators introduced and adjusted to national indicators and conditions.

To each strategy goal there are one or more action steps listed and some of these have a time frame.

A new nature conservation strategy 2009-2013 was adopted by Althingi in February 2010. Its main focus is on protection of species, habitats and ecosystems in line with international agreements.


In the strategy, 13 areas are planned for designation in the strategy period. One because of geology. Another is enlargement of Þjórsárver, a Ramsar wetland area. Others are for protection of habitats, plants and invertebrates.



(1) Biodiversity. Report in Icelandic.

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The Act on Nature conservation is a framework legislation and sets general criteria for nature conservation and concerns all human interference with nature. The act is also the main legal base for protection of areas, organisms, ecosystems and biodiversity. The first act on nature conservation is from 1956 and the existing act is from 1999. Older existing legislation was for protection of individual species, areas, on forestry and soil conservation (1907) and Thingvellir National Park was protected by law in 1928. A number of laws exist addressing specific issues under the framework of nature protection.

Iceland has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and is committed to the 2010 target which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010. This target is also incorporated in the Nordic Environmental Action Plan for 2005-2008.

A number of strategies have been adopded for various issues and sectors:

1. A new nature conservation strategy 2009-2013 has been adopted. The strategy has a main focus on the protection of species, habitats and ecosystems.

2. Iceland’s National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2002–2020 was adopted in 2002. The strategy was revieved with 17 priorities for 2006-2009 in 2005 (1).

3. Strategy for land reclamation 2003-2014 was adopted in 2002. Its goal is to halt soil erosion and promote sustainable land use.

4. The ministry´s committee report for a strategy to protect natural birch woods and for reclamation of lost birch woods was published in 2007 (2).

5. Recovering drained wetland areas. In the period from 1941 to 1990, about 32 000 km of ditches were dug which corresponds to over 40.000 km2 of wetlands (3). Now the Environmental policy is for recovering the wetland areas. Although the recovery is slow for the time being, the development is in the right direction.

6. In order to take into account nature conservation concerns in the utilisation of hydro-, geothermal and other energy sources, the Ministry of Industry has been developing a Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources since 1999 in cooperation with the Ministry for the Environment.

7. Iceland´s national policy on the ocean was published in 2004 (4). The principal objectives of the policy are to maintain the ocean’s ecology, biodiversity and productive capacity, and that its living resources can be utilised sustainably. This means sustainable utilisation, conservation and management of the resource based on research, technology and expertise, on the basis of respect for the marine ecosystem as a whole.

8. Iceland´s National Programme of Action for the protection of the marine environment from land-based activities (5).

9. The national strategy and policy on conservation and sustainable use of the living marine resources is stated in Icelandic legislation and the Government’s Action Programme on Sustainable Development (1). It relates directly to marine environmental protection and together with the Fisheries Management Act stipulates how to work towards sustainable use and conservation of marine living resources.

            The fisheries management system is based on an individual transferable quota (ITQ) system and strict technical regulations such as closed areas, mesh-sizes and selective fishing gear are an important part of the regulatory framework. This catch limitation system is the cornerstone of the Icelandic fisheries management system. The system is intended to limit the total catch and to prevent more fishing from the fish stocks than the authorities allow at any given time.

            The Marine Research Institute (MRI) publishes every year a status report and recommends total allowable catches (TAC) for many stocks (6). One of the main tasks of the MRI is to advice the government on TACs and sustainable fishing strategies. The advice is based on: Long‑term management scheme (catch rules), whis in turn is based on stock assessment, projection of catches and stock sizes.

            An advisory board of scientists scrutinises the assessment work for all the species made by individual scientists of the MRI and makes recommendations on TACs. The MRI advice for some of the major Icelandic stocks are also reviewed by the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management (ACFM) of ICES.

10. The ministry´s committee report on sensitive marine areas was published in 2005. The report was followed by implementation of protection measures for five coral areas (7).

11. Strategy and regulation on Conservation of genetic and cultural resources in agriculture. Is related to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (29).



(1) Welfare for the Future. Framework for sustainable development in Icelandic society. Priorities 2006-2009. Report in English.

(2) Conservation and recovery of birch woods in Iceland. Report in Icelandic.

(3) Strategy for recovery of drained wetland areas. Report in Icelandic.

(4) The Ocean: Iceland´s Policy. Report in English.

(5) Iceland´s National Programme of Action for the protection of the marine environment from land-based activities. Report in English.

(6) State of Marine Stocks in Icelandic waters 2009/2010 – Prospects for the Quota Year 2010/2011. In Icelandic with English summary.

(7) Comittee report on marine protection areas. Report in Icelandic.

(8) Conservation of genetic resources in agriculture. Report in Icelandic.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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