Fishy business: Heavy commercial fishing near Svalbard wreaking havoc on marine life, Greenpeace claims


The cod fishing might be great, but fishing for cod isn’t great.

That’s the assessment of Greenpeace in a report released earlier this month showing a five-fold increase in the amount of cod caught in the Barents Sea near Svalbard since 2001. More than 100 Norwegian and Russian trawlers fished in those waters during the past three years, according to vessel-tracking data analyzed by the environmental organization.

“Climate change is opening up whole areas of the Arctic for the very first time,” said Frida Bengtsson, described as a Greenpeace “campaigner,” in a prepared statement issued with the report. “Some companies see this as a business opportunity, but we think it’s a chance to protect a fragile ecosystem before it’s too late. We cannot destroy a marine environment that we don’t even understand.”


The Russian-flagged trawler Martha Arendsee conducts bottomfishing at about 79 degrees north latitude under the watchful eyes of Greenpeace members, who oppose such catches. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

The organization told Svalbardposten last week it opposes a recent revision to Norway’s Marine Resources Act that will allow fish processing facilities in Svalbard. The organization’s report expands on those arguments, claiming “bottom trawling is a highly destructive fishing method, which is already responsible for damaging up to half of Norway’s cold water corals reefs.”

“At least 70 percent of all the Atlantic cod that ends up in supermarkets around the world is from the Barents Sea,” a summary of the report notes. “Some of the world’s biggest seafood brands are unwittingly buying cod from this vulnerable area. We’re asking them to get tough with their suppliers to ensure the northern part of the Barents Sea is off limits to giant fishing trawlers.”

Greenpeace is asking the Norwegian government to make the Barents Sea region off-limits to fish trawlers. The organization has stated it does support the catching of snow crabs in Svalbard, since they are an invasive species making their way further north and west into the archipelago’s waters, and therefore presenting a threat to native species.

The pleas, not surprisingly, are falling on deaf ears within the industry, as several companies have already announced their intention to build fish and crab processing facilities in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

“Norwegian trawler fleets have played an active role in identifying valuable deposits of benthic habitats in areas that fall within the jurisdiction of Norwegian fisheries, and the industry has been an active contributor in establishing protections for these habitats through area closures and fishing restrictions in these new areas,” said Jan Ivar Marak, resources director of the Norwegian Fishing Vessel Owners Association, in an interview with Undercurrent News.

“Greenpeace has proposed for closure includes traditional Norwegian fishing waters, fished by shrimp trawlers for decades. We believe that the Greenpeace proposal to close these areas is not evidence-based.”

The Institute of Marine Research (IMR) in Norway – which provides scientific advice to the Norwegian government on fisheries and aquaculture issues – also issued a statement disagreeing with Greenpeace’s assessment of the negative impacts, according to the news site.

The facilities are also likely to receive support from a majority of local officials and residents since the industry is seen as one way to help replace the hundreds of coal mining jobs lost during the past couple of years. There is also support from national politicians, including But Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland, who  during a visit to Longyearbyen last week to discuss future economic development told NRK “fisheries are a definite possibility.”

It will take time to develop a local fish processing industry and numerous issues such as environmental regulations have to be studied before facilities are approved, according to both government and industry officials.