BRUSSELS The European Union has decided to block Icelandic fishing vessels carrying mackerel from landing at its ports in an escalation of a dispute over fishing quotas.
The European Commission, the executive of the 27-member EU, formally notified the European Economic Area of plans for the ban, the final step before enforcing it.
"We have informed the EEA joint committee that we will implement the landing bans without further delay," commission spokesman Oliver Drewes told Reuters.
Iceland's decision to raise its mackerel fishing quotas last year has brought it into conflict with Britain, Ireland and Norway, threatening the island nation's bid to join the EU.
Home to just 320,000 people but a major power in the Atlantic fisheries, Iceland began talks last year on joining the bloc in the hope of greater stability and financial security after the collapse of its banking system in 2008.
But the island has also sought to benefit from a surge in mackerel stocks in its waters, an apparent consequence of warmer sea temperatures. Talks broke down last summer and Iceland unilaterally increased the amount of mackerel its boats could catch to 130,000 tonnes.
Iceland's chief negotiator in the dispute dismissed the EU's move as symbolic, saying Icelandic mackerel fishermen rarely took their catches directly to EU ports, preferring to land them in Iceland for processing and export.
"All catches have been landed in Icelandic ports and processed in Iceland," Tomas Heidar told Reuters in a telephone interview.
He said that under EEA rules, a ban would affect only fishing vessels landing their catches directly in the EU and not container ships containing mackerel that had already been processed.
The EEA groups the EU's 27 members with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.
The EU estimates Iceland's traditional catch at 2,000 tonnes, while Iceland says it has been catching more than 100,000 tonnes of mackerel since 2008.
The dispute has prompted comparisons with the 'cod wars' of the 1950s and 1970s, when Iceland and Britain deployed naval forces.
Iceland says more than 1 million tonnes of mackerel, a quarter of the stock, migrated into its economic zone during the five-month summer feeding season. It plans to maintain this year's 17 percent share of the north Atlantic catch in 2011.
It criticised the EU and Norway last month for failing to take that into account when they jointly decided to take 583,882 tonnes of mackerel in 2011, the majority of the amount that scientists say is ecologically safe to catch.
(Reporting by Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, Editing by Noah Barkin)