SOVEREIGNTY CLAWS: Norway tightens grip on Svalbard’s snow crabs and boosts its claim to oil with Supreme Court ruling


Norway won a huge – and expected – victory this week as the Supreme Court declared the country has exclusive rights to manage the crab stocks in the waters north of Svalbard, rejecting a European Union-backed claim of legal access.

The dispute concerned a Latvian trawler detained in the area for catching snow crabs, which the court declared a sedentary species rather than a migratory one, meaning it is considered a sea bottom resource of the continental shelf. That puts the crabs in the same category as oil and gas, which expert observers said is the true point of the battle and why those challenging Norway are likely to try to bringing the case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

“Norway is tightening its grip,” Oeystein Jensen, a researcher in international law at the independent Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, told Reuters. “The court clarifies that if you are going to fish, or search for oil and gas, you need permission from the Norwegian authorities.”

The case revolved around the detention of the Senator by the Norwegian Coast Guard in January of 2017. The trawler was deploying crab traps in the so-called Fishery Protection Zone around Svalbard and the Russian captain refused cast guard orders to pick them up, arguing he had proper permission from EU authorities and the vessel was in international waters.

SIA North Star Ltd., the Latvian company that owns the trawler, argued crabs are not sedentary because they move around and thus are regulated under regional fisheries accords signed by European Union, Norway and Russia and other entities. The company also asserted Norwegian laws and interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty are discriminatory towards foreign crabbers.

But the Supreme Court, which gave the case special priority and utilized all 11 justices, rejected that argument as well in upholding a lower court ruling against the company.

“The Svalbard Treaty does not prevent penalizing the person who catches without permission,” the ruling states. “This applies regardless of nationality. The verdict is unanimous.”

SIA North Star Ltd. has been ordered to pay 1.3 million kroner in fines.

While oil is seen as the larger battle, the Senator has been idle since the detainment, adding a sizeable loss to the already considerable court fees, according to the vessel’s owner. Peteris Pildegovics, head of SIA North Star Ltd., told The Baltic Course the court’s decision was based on political rather than legal factors.

“The court does not recognize that the state has been acting in a discriminatory manner by refusing a crabbing license and not allowing us to catch snow crabs even though we had applied to the Norwegian authorities for the license,” he said. “This time the ruling of the Norwegian Supreme Court is political and in the interests of the Norwegian state.”

Pildegovics told the newspaper he plans to do everything possible to get the dispute heard in an international court.

“The Latvian state must take more specific steps to defend the interests of its entrepreneurs in foreign countries,” Pildegovics said.