Iceland and Ísafjörður - A gateway to the Arctic

Monday 2. November 2015 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

Michael Honeth has been a member of the faculty of the University Centre of the Westfjords for the past four years. As a marine biologist from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia he has gathered extensive research experience in the field of coastal and marine management. In addition to teaching at the University Centre he currently holds a full time position as a marine research station manager on Tobacco Caye, a small island on the barrier reef in Belize. Furthermore, Michael is now working towards establishing a subarctic marine research station in Ísafjörður, based on the same concept as the one in Belize. In Michael’s opinion Ísafjörður is the perfect location for this type of research station.

During his two week seminar in Ísafjörður this fall he set time aside to talk about his various projects and how his interest in Iceland came about.

A true globetrotter residing in the tropics

Michael was born to Swedish parents, and his mother tongue is Swedish, but he grew up in South Africa and got his Bachelor’s degree as well as his Master’s in Canada. He can truly be labelled a globetrotter with an international upbringing and operating simultaneously between the tropics and the Arctic.

In establishing the Ísafjörður Subarctic Marine Station Michael is working alongside his colleague and girlfriend, Mathilde Loubeyres, who also is his partner at the research station in Belize. There they cooperate with the government: “The primary purpose of the research station in Belize is to monitor the health of the coral reefs on behalf of the Belizean government because they don’t have the capacity to do that themselves. We fund ourselves by hosting researchers and study-abroad classes and teaching them tropical marine ecology, underwater surveying techniques and fish identification. So groups come for a week or a few days and we teach them about the marine environment. That pays for the research that we undertake in between these classes.”

Two different worlds?

At first glance one would think Iceland and Belize do not have much in common in terms of scientific research, but Michael underlines the similarities: “It is not as different as it would seem. I describe Iceland as a cold Belize and Belize as a warm Iceland. They have the same population size, similar living area and both countries depend on the ocean and its resources. We deal with overfishing, illegal fishing, tourism, the cruise industry – all the same issues, even though it is in a completely different part of the world. The only big change is the Arctic environment, even if it is subarctic, it is a gateway to the rest of the Arctic.”

The ocean is an opportunity

With a Bachelor’s degree in Administration and Information Management, Michael took a different turn for his Master’s degree and set out for Marine Biology: “Mostly because I knew after I had done my undergraduate that I wanted to work outside and not be locked in an office building. That was my primary driver. But I also saw the ocean as an opportunity. It is probably the least developed industrial sector or production sector in the world and when I was looking forward to a career of fifty years the ocean was the industry that I thought would have the most opportunities.”

Students developing deep understanding that serves them in the work place

Currently Michael teaches two classes at the University Centre of the Westfjords: one is marine ecology, which is a general, foundational graduate level course. The other one is shipping and offshore resources; non-living products and services including oil and gas, deep sea mining, security and the shipping industry.  Every once in a while he brings in small island developing nations and their issues in facing climate changes. “As far as student development goes, my objective is really to see them develop a deep understanding that will serve them in the workplace as resource managers. A beautiful thing I like about the University Centre is that the classes are fairly small so you get to know all the students even though you are here for just two or three weeks at a time in an intensive course. I now advise many of my past students in their research projects. Many of them have gone into to the workplace and we still keep in touch and help each other out. So you can build an extensive network here.”

Michael finds the University Centre graduate program to be very similar to his studies at the Dalhousie graduate program in Canada, “but the University Centre program in Iceland is much more general in its approach. While centrally located between Europe and North America, it serves as a gateway to the Arctic, and the subjects covered are therefore necessarily interdisciplinary. So any student who is looking for future opportunities in the ocean - which are definitely going to be aplenty in the Arctic - this is an ideal location.”

High awareness for coastal and marine issues in Iceland

When asked about Icelanders’ awareness in the field of coastal and marine management, Michael believes they have come a long way: “I think Icelanders are right at the top. They are connected to the marine and coastal environment more than most other countries are. The bias is different, Icelanders have a different perspective on fisheries and whaling for example than you would have in Canada, Sweden or Norway for instance. But their knowledge is extensive and there is lots to be learned from the Icelanders. It may not coincide with the standard way of thinking about the environment, but that is another interesting factor about learning from the Icelanders.”

“The arctic is gaining more and more importance”

Apart from teaching, Michael and his partner, Mathilde, are working towards establishing a subarctic marine station in Ísafjörður, with support from the University Centre and other research organizations in the area. “We are essentially trying to duplicate the successful business model that we have in Belize, where we do study abroad programs and combine that with graduate research programs so students get to be a part of the research process even at the undergraduate level and researchers get the assistance they need. It has been very successful in Belize and we feel that Ísafjörður in particular is very well suited to break into the Arctic environment. Many research organizations are out in the tropics, but the arctic is gaining more and more importance as it is getting more traffic, and businesses and opportunities are opening up. We would like to catch those students who are studying Arctic issues.”

Ísafjörður offers a mini Arctic environment

Ísafjörður is not the only place the couple considered for their research station. Norway, Canada and Alaska, USA are all attractive locations but Iceland has the upper hand in many ways: “First and foremost Iceland is centrally located, it is easy to get students here from all over the world. Secondly Ísafjörður is a sentinel environment to Arctic issues; you have fjords and glaciers and you can get out into the water just by stepping off the dock. And you can do all your oceanography here. On top of that you have all your research institutions here, such as the Marine Research Institute, the University Centre with its students and a very solid infrastructure. The third reason is that Iceland offers excellent value, especially compared to Scandinavia.

A cosmopolitan place...relatively speaking

Many might find Ísafjörður to be a fairly remote area of Iceland, but Michael does not agree:  “It is all relative. When you come from Belize or the Marshall Islands, this is a cosmopolitan place - you even have a movie theatre! Ísafjörður has everything you can imagine that you need. On the other hand if you are coming from New York, Toronto, Montreal or London things might look different. I think the biggest complaints I have experienced  here is that the airplanes don’t always go due to weather conditions, but that is also what makes this very attractive, especially to students who like adventure travel and getting closer to nature. Having that unpredictability makes for a much more interesting story.”

What do the Vikings, chess and the University Centre have in common?

Michael‘s interest in Iceland is genuine and spans almost a lifetime: “Ever since I was a child Iceland has attracted me. Mostly because of my Swedish background I feel, maybe naively, connected to the Vikings. Sweden, Denmark and Norway have lost their Viking heritage, whereas to me, Iceland was the last genuine home of the Vikings. I was always drawn to Iceland because of that. Then later, the big Fischer vs. Spassky chess game took place in Reykjavík, and as an avid chess player, that was a “wow” event in my life which reinforced the interest. Then the University Centre invited me to come and teach here and I jumped at the opportunity to visit Iceland for the first time. I was a little worried that I would be disappointed because I had built up all these expectations over my life. But I loved it. It exceeded every expectation I had!”