A severe case of the crabs: Lawsuit about illegal fishing in Svalbard really about oil drilling rights, experts say


A kilogram of crabs costs about twice as much as a kilogram of oil. But it’s the latter that’s perceived as the real treasure in a rapidly escalating legal battle between Norway and the European Union that may redefine the Svalbard Treaty and affect rights to drilling and other activity in the region for decades to come.

“The snow crab is a test. What happens now decides what will happen in every other issue,” said Rachel Tiller, a scientist at the SINTEF Ocean group in Trondheim, in an interview with the website Politico.

Norway’s concern, according to the website, is “the shellfish sets a legal precedent. If outsiders can come in and scoop up the crab, that also wins them the right to hunt for oil, gas and other minerals.”

The dispute “started” on Jan. 16 – although the roots go back much further – when the Norwegian Coast Guard detained the Latvian trawler Senator on charges of illegal catching snow crabs in disputed waters off Svalbard. The EU quickly jumped into what became a battle of national and international laws, with the EU claiming Norway was being unfairly restrictive in issuing licenses to EU vessels.

“No country wants to give up resources without receiving anything in return. That is the principle here too,” Norwegian Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg told AFP.

Norway, using a strict interpretation of the treaty, argues the agreement only applies to a 12-mile zone of waters surrounding Svalbard. The EU is arguing the range is 200 miles, in line with an economic zone that did not exist when the treaty was signed.

Norway won the first round earlier this year when the Latvian trawler was ordered to pay a penalty of 2.5 million kroner – roughly the value of the catch – by the Hålogaland Court of Appeal. But the case is expected to be appeared to Norway’s Supreme Court and Latvian officials have indicated they will likely bring the matter to the International Court in The Hague.

“The government has decided to support the fishermen and we are very pleased,” said Peteris Pildegovics, shipping director at the Latvian company that owns the Senator, in an interview with the Latvian newspaper Delfi. He said the company is losing one million Euros a month each month its four vessels are not out fishing.

But of far greater potential important to the two sides is how the outcome will affect what Politico describes as “a new form of gold rush for Svalbard, which has historically been a center for coal mining and whaling.”

“Part of the reason for the legal concern is that crab stocks are classified differently from fish,” the article states. “Because they live a sedentary life on the seafloor, they are seen as a resource belonging to the continental shelf. If the EU or other countries stake a successful legal claim to the crab, then it would be harder to challenge their entitlement to mineral resources.”

Up to a quarter of the world’s remaining oil and gas deposits are in the Arctic, according to various government and environmental studies, with with about 65 percent of Norway’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves located in the Barents Sea. Norway has been aggressively pushing drilling further north in that area, with record numbers of drilling sites being offered at record-high latitudes reaching those of Svalbard, and climate change is expected to make drilling feasible in yet more areas.