Take advantage of the search to browse through the World Heritage Centre information.

Breiðafjörður Nature Reserve

Date of Submission: 07/02/2011
Criteria: (ii)(v)(x)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Ministry for the Environment
State, Province or Region:
West Iceland
Coordinates: N65 15 W22 30
Ref.: 5585

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Breiðafjörður is a large shallow bay located in Western Iceland, with an exceptional combination of natural features and cultural and historical heritage. It is approximately 50 km wide and 125 km long, encircled by mountains, including the volcano Snæfellsjökull on the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the south side, and the Western Fjords peninsula to the north. The coast is a fairly narrow strip interspersed with farms and small urban areas. The spectacular land- and seascape consists of shallow seas, small fjords and bays and the inner part of extensive intertidal areas dotted with about 3,000 islands, islets and skerries.  The area contains about half of Iceland's intertidal area and over one-third of its coastline. Tides of six metres, unique for Iceland, contribute to the diverse land- and seascapes.

The bedrock, formed during rift volcanism in the late Tertiary, has a gentle south-east dip. The area consists mainly of relatively regular piles of basaltic lavas with occasional extinct central volcanoes yielding a variety of geological formations. During the Quaternary, the lava pile was deeply eroded by glaciers leaving a diverse landscape with several geothermal sites, some visible only at low tide.

The area has diverse flora and fauna with substantial proportions of the Icelandic population of a number of bird and mammal species, and an intertidal zone high in biodiversity and productivity with extensive algal "forests" and other important habitats for invertebrates and fish, essential in the food chain. The area supports 230 recorded species of vascular plants and around 50 regular breeding bird species. It is the main habitat for the white tailed eagle in Iceland and also important for eider duck. The two Icelandic seal species, the common seal Phoca vitulina and grey seal Halichoerus grypus, have their main haul-outs on habitats in the islands and skerries.

The only village on the islands of Breiðafjörður is located on Flatey, the only island in the area which is inhabited year round. The old village in Flatey forms a unity of houses that are architecturally unique in Iceland. The oldest house was built in 1840 and most of the houses are built at the turn of the last century and in the first years of that century. In the Breiðafjörður area there are numerous archaeological remains. Many of them are already listed and preserved according to the Heritage Act of Iceland. The remains contain valuable information on past ways of life, e.g. seafaring and other activities including farming. In many places remains of stone walls, ports, landing places and fishermen's huts in numerous islands and reeves can be found. The fishermen that occupied these huts came from farms further a field and stayed there only during the fishing season (in spring and autumn). The foundation of good life in Breiðafjörður was based on rich fishing grounds, abundant seabirds and their eggs and the seal giving both meat and skin for clothing. There are also remains of vegetable gardens or indications of their existence. The island was also an important trading centre from the middle ages onwards, and in 1770 it became an authorised trade post. Flatey was further an essential cradle of culture in Iceland, and its former monastery (built in 1172) was a centre of knowledge situated on the island's highest point. Iceland's first library was built there in 1864. The well known medieval manuscript Flateyjarbók is named after the island where it was preserved for a while.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Breiðafjörður is a vast fjord in Western Iceland and is best known for its myriad islands, islets and skerries and its extensive intertidal areas high in biodiversity and productivity essential in the food chain. The area is an internationally important staging site for the High-Arctic nesting brent goose Branta benicla and knot Calidris canutus.

The area of Breiðafjörður is highly valued for its history and continuous inhabitation since the settlement of Iceland and as an important source of food and commodities to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants and neighbouring communities as far back as the middle ages. The traditional island lifestyle of farming, fishing, eider farming for down, and the natural features of Breiðafjörður, in combination with Flatey's role as an important centre for the development of Icelandic culture, as exemplified by the early establishment of a monastery and the foundation of the first library in the country, all confer the outstanding value of Breiðafjörður.

Criterion ii.

The village in Flatey island is an exceptional example of a settlement from the turn of the last century, built by a community based on the sustainable use of the local environment.

Criterion v.

The Breiðafjörður area is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape where land use was characterised by mixed farming and fishing. In addition to the village in Flatey, various sites highlight the local people's way of life and the role nature played in the prosperity of the local society.

Criterion x. The area is rich in biodiversity, with diverse flora and fauna, and an intertidal zone high in productivity with extensive kelp forests and other important habitats for invertebrates and fish. There are important habitats of red listed species such as the white-tailed eagle and the grey-phalarope. The area is an internationally significant staging site for the high-arctic nesting Brent goose and knot.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The natural and cultural heritage of the area is protected under the terms of Breiðafjörður Conservation Act no. 54/1995. Cultural monuments are also protected under the terms of the National Cultural Heritage Act 107/2001.

The land- and seascape has significant aesthetic values and importance, and the area is almost untouched by recent technical encroachment. The area is characterised by extensive intertidal areas between the islands, creating quite a different land- and seascape at low and high tides. The village on Flatey is a unique and intact example of a village built just after 1900 and as such typical of that specific period. The village is an architectural testimony of timber buildings that have been almost wholly preserved and which have been mainly unaffected by subsequent developments. Most of the houses in the village are now used as summerhouses or second homes. The proposed area is very large and includes all the necessary elements of coastal and tidal communities and ecosystems along with documented and preserved remnants of human activities and uses.

Comparison with other similar properties

A full comparative study of the area has not yet been carried out, but similar properties could be considered to be the Vega Archipelago in Norway. Vega was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004 based on criteria v because of cultural landscapes and sustainable way of living in the area, with fisheries and eiderdown harvesting as the main sustain for life. The Breiðafjörður area is similar in this regard but would be nominated for the World Heritage list based on a number of criteria including natural features such as geology, extensive intertidal areas, high biodiversity - divers flora and fauna, high productivity, extensive kelp forests and fucoids algae and importance for waterfowl and migrating birds.