In Memoriam - Jakob Jakobsson

We are deeply saddened to inform about the passing of a great colleague Jakob Jakobsson.
Published: 8 February 2021

​​Written by Keith Brander, Emeritus, DTU Aqua, Denmark, and Jón Olafsson, Marine and Freshwater Research Insitute, Iceland

Jakob Jakobsson, twenty-first President of ICES, died in Reykjavik on 22 October 2020 at the age of 89. Born in Neskaupstaður in the Northeast of Iceland on 28 June 1931, his father was a fishing skipper and boat owner, so he grew up with and retained a strong connection to the Icelandic fishing industry, which stood him in good stead when persuading fishermen to follow scientific advice. As a child at Strönd (the family house in Neskaupstaður) Jakob used to measure the sea water temperature at high tide for his father, with the data providing a signal for the spring start of the regional fishery. 

After graduating from Reykjavik Grammar School (Menntaskolin) in 1952 he went on to take a BSc (Hons.) in fisheries biology and mathematics at Glasgow University in 1956. For the next 45 years, Jakob worked as a fisheries biologist at the Icelandic Marine Research Institute, being appointed Deputy Director in 1975 and Director from 1984-1998.  He was appointed the first professor in fisheries biology at the University of Iceland from 1994-2001.

Most of Jakob's scientific career was devoted to research on the herring stocks around Iceland and to advising both fishermen and fisheries managers on the location and state of the stocks. Building on his knowledge, experience and intuition, he was in daily communication with the fishermen. At that time the herring fishery was of unique economic importance for villages in the north and east and for Iceland as a whole; the radio news gave daily updates on the herring fishery. Herring catches  increased enormously during the early 1960s, with the development of new fishing techniques and instruments, particularly echo sounding, to which Jakob contributed greatly, becoming a household name. By the end of the decade the major fishery for Norwegian spring spawning herring, which used to migrate along the north coast of Iceland to feed during the summer, had collapsed, due to a south and eastward shift in the polar front and to overfishing.

Jakob's role changed to rebuilding the herring stocks and advocating sustainable fisheries. He was respected by fishermen, boat owners, ministry officials and politicians alike, which stood him in good stead when he made the case for sustainable management of economically important fisheries.  His words carried weight in arguing for expanding the Iceland fishery zone and for rebuilding the most important stocks, including cod.

During his directorship relations between the Marine Research Institute and the fisheries ministry improved and this is still the foundation of advice on catch limits and fishing areas around Iceland. He trusted his staff to produce new and useful knowledge. Once at a staff meeting some current issue was being discussed and someone asked "what is the Institute´s stand on this matter?".  Jakob looked over the room and said "You are the institute!". This made everyone think.

As a herring assessment scientist, much of Jakob's scientific work was presented and discussed at the Herring Committee of ICES, which in the 1960s featured fierce and interminable arguments about the causes of the decline in the North Sea herring fisheries. Jakob compared the group to the warriors in Valhalla, who spent every day killing each other so that by the evening everyone was dead and then they rose and started drinking. Wit, warmth and charm were weapons that Jakob was skilled at using to keep a meeting working effectively together and he became a natural chairman and conference convenor. He was nominated a Delegate to ICES in 1983 and elected as Vice-President in 1984, First Vice-President in 1985 and President in 1988.

During the third "cod war" between Iceland and the UK in 1976, Jakob accompanied the Icelandic Prime Minister, Geir Hallgrimsson, to meet the UK prime minister, Harold Wilson, in Downing Street. Wilson frequently wore an old Gannex raincoat and Jakob, who was wearing a new Gannex, joked about being careful that they did not get swapped. 

Jakob was awarded the Order of the Falcon (Hin íslenska fálkaorða) and Grand Knight's Cross (Stórriddarakross) by the President of Iceland and the Chorafas prize in 1995 for his work on the sustainable utilization of natural resources.

He is survived by his second wife, Margrét E. Jónsdóttir former reporter at Reykjavik Radio, three children and several grandchildren. His first wife, Jóhanna Gunnbjörnsdóttir died in 1974.

Read Keith Brander's personal tribute to Jakob Jakobsson

​Read Emory Anderson's personal tribute to Jakob Jakobsson​​​​

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In Memoriam - Jakob Jakobsson

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