TRAWLING FOR TROUBLE: As one wrecked ship fuels emergency worries in north Svalbard, a vessel seized here is inflaming fears of future crises and conflict on a global scale

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While a damaged trawler stuck on an icy coast in north Svalbard is worrying local and national officials about the area’s emergency capabilities, some observers may be unaware of how the difficulties of another trawler are at the same time prompting a far more wide-reaching battle about a future where many more such ships will be seeking riches in remote waters in the region.

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A map shows the density in the snow crab population per nautical mile in the Barents Sea in 2007 and 2017. Map by The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

As emergency workers were removing diesel fuel and other toxic materials from the Northguider trawler early this week, a trial started in Oslo over a bitter dispute between Norway and the European Union about who has the right to catch snow crabs in the area. Stirring up the turbulent waters even more is a new study released at the same time predicting alarming environmental consequences from both the increase of crabs and ships in the area – and suggesting against all likely odds that both be curtailed.

At the simplest level the trial is about whether the Latvian boat Senator, detained by Norwegian authorities for allegedly catching crabs illegally, actually had legal permission to catch the species, but as with the stranded Northguider trawler the overall issue is considerably more complex with implications well beyond the immediate dispute.

While seafood entities are eagerly eyeing the rapidly migrating of snow crabs toward Svalbard due to warming waters, the general consensus is the trial’s real impact will be determining the rights to the far more lucrative natural seabed resources of oil and gas.

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A map shows the Northguider trawler was isolated far from other vessels, settlements and emergency resources when it ran aground in north Svalbard on Dec. 28. The area may become much more cluttered with such ships in the future, adding to concerns about conducting emergency operations given the area’s oft-hazardous weather and terrain. Map courtesy of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

“The question of the snow crab is a proxy for oil,” Oeystein Jensen, a senior research fellow in law at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, told Reuters.”Because what is valid for the snow crab is valid for the oil industry.”

The legal dispute, which some analysts have predicted could ultimately end up in an international court in The Hague, is of such complexity 11 Norwegian Supreme Court judges – that’s six more than usual – were appointed to preside over the trial. A lower court ruling stated the European Commission does not have the right to issue fishing licenses off Svalbard due to Norway’s sovereignty of the archipelago under the 1920 Svalbard Treaty.

“The 1920 Svalbard Treaty forces Norway to treat all signatories fairly,” Jensen said in an analysis largely siding with Norwegian authorities. “The EU does not have the right to issue licenses, but the treaty perhaps grants the EU the right to be equally treated. The EU, by issuing their own licenses, has ignored these steps and ignored international law.”

The Supreme Court, however, issued a statement before the trial it will limit its process to deciding whether or not the snow crab is a sedimentary species and following on from that, whether or not the catching of snow crab without a valid license is punishable. That means that the court will not decide on a general understanding of the Svalbard Treaty.

The lower court ruling was appealed by Peteris Pildegovics,, owner of the Senator, with multiple EU entities weighing in as affected parties. If snow crab is declared a sedentary species then it is a resource belonging to the continental shelf of Norway, and if the EU can stake a claim over the snow crab then it could be harder for Oslo to secure its claim over potential oil and gas resources.

Still, the crabs themselves are a rich catch, with Pildegovics estimating the loss of income due to the Senator’s seizure at about 20 million euros a year.

A dispute extending beyond the trial itself is whether Norway’s courts and government are acting with legal impartiality, said Daniel Voces, manager director of Europeche, a lobbyist group representing 45,000 EU fishing vessels.

“We know the Norwegian government is applying a lot of pressure in order to secure a successful outcome that fits with their own interests,” he told the French radio station RFI. “For example, they appointed a prosecutor from the Norwegian prime minister’s cabinet, so we see the government in Norway trying to influence the outcome of this process.”

A verdict is expected in three to four weeks, according to Reuters.

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Many species on Svalbard’s seabeds are already being threatened by warmer waters and new species migrating to the area. Scientists are concerned those impacts will greatly increase with the arrival of snow crabs and trawlers. Photo courtesy of The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

Meanwhile, scientists conducting a just-published study for The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research aren’t especially concerned with who gets to catch the crabs – instead, the worry is what happens to the existing ecosystem when the species and ships arrive in great numbers, and how that will further increase the immense impacts climate change is already causing.

“The increase in temperature is felt in most of the Barents Sea, while fishing is expanding northwards and taking place in areas east and north of Svalbard where there was previously no or little trawling,” a summary of the study notes. “When the sea ice is gone the vessels fishing with bottom trawlers can come further north than before. That affects bottom animals in areas that have previously been uninteresting to the fishermen.”

An abstract of the study asserts “mapping vulnerability to multiple stressors enables authorities managing human activities to identify vulnerable areas that warrant special measures, including protection from trawling and reduction of the snow crab stock.”

Such concerns have been raised about crabs and other migrating species numerous times in recent years, but so far the Norwegian government is aggressively seeking to boost both commercial seafood and oil activities in the region. Furthermore, despite the calls for hastily curbing climate change emissions to prevent what are seen as catastrophic global effects as soon as 2040, carbon emissions worldwide are expected to show a 2.7 percent rise in 2018, including 3.4 percent in the United States last year due to widespread scaling back of mitigation regulations under President Donald Trump.

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