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The Archipelago of Svalbard Is an Exemplar of the North’s Pristine, Unadulterated Nature
Yet below the surface of Svalbard lies a hotbed of potential international disputes over the right to authority over the territory’s surrounding waters, and even deeper – its continental shelf.
Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle, has always received a fair dose of attention despite of its seemingly uninviting location. Ever since Russian Pomors landed there some 400 years ago seeking walrus meat, the territory has always provided a haven (although far from luxuriant) for hunting, whaling and fishing expeditions, as well as for scientists curious to discover the glaciered environment, its fauna and flora.
The status of the territory was resolved when the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 declared the archipelago an overseas part of the Kingdom of Norway. However, to accommodate other states developing the archipelago, the treaty contains some legal qualifications which allow for signatory nations to have equal rights in engaging in commercial activities there. This led the Soviets to establish their own coal mining industry based in the town of Barentsburg.
The main island of the archipelago, Spitsbergen, is home to numerous international polar research facilities, including the Polish Polar Station run by the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is also the University Center in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, which offers college education in arctic studies.
Fishing for compromise
Economic cooperation between nations exists in the region, notably in the fisheries industry. Every fall, a Joint Fisheries Commission meets between Russia and Norway, allocating quotas for shared stocks fished in the Barents Sea, including waters around Svalbard. The Barents Sea is regarded as one of the world’s most bioproductive seas, possessing very fertile fishing grounds, especially for the highly valued Northeast Arctic Cod.
Olav Myklebust from the Section of Treaty Law at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that “Norway and Russia have a long-standing history of close cooperation on fisheries management [and share] a strong common interest in a sound and responsible management of fish stocks in the Barents Sea.”
While the 1920 treaty supports economic harmony on land, there are cases which have undermined industrial cooperation in the waters surrounding the archipelago.
Firstly, despite annual accords between Russia and Norway, recent years have seen numerous accounts of illegal over-fishing. “The most serious challenge in recent years is enormous overfishing of cod, primarily by Russian vessels delivering their catch to EU markets,” commented Olav Schram Stokke, a research fellow from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.
“According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, annual Barents Sea over-fishing in the range of 100,000 tons, or 20 to 25 percent of the total allowable catch, has been common throughout the 2000s.”
However, there is evidence to suggest that over-fishing has been somewhat reduced due to stronger enforcement measures in European ports, including blacklisting of vessels that engage in unregulated fishing. “The North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission has been important here and the Russian government has joined Norway in pressing for these stronger rules,” Stokke added.
Whose water is it, anyway?
Secondly, there have been disputes over Svalbard’s jurisdiction emanating from the 1920 treaty.
In 1977 Norway announced the delineation of its exclusive economic zone around Svalbard. It argued that the treaty’s provisions of equal economic access only apply to the islands and their territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the shoreline), but not to the wider exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles from the shoreline). This law was consolidated with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea signed in 1982, stipulating that any coastal state can claim territory 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from their shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone.
“Norwegian jurisdiction around Svalbard is disputed by some states,” Stokke said. “There is no disagreement that the archipelago itself belongs to Norway (based on the 1920 treaty), but there are different views as to what implications that sovereignty has for establishment of maritime zones.”
Moreover, the long-standing history of fisheries cooperation between the two nations has been further ruffled by recent episodes of Russian trawler detention on the grounds of fishery rights infringement. Notably, in October 2005, the Russian trawler “Elektron” was arrested but then fled with the Norwegian inspectors on board.
Recently the Russian Federal Fishery Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) announced that “on August 23, 2008, the Norwegian coastal guard ship W-303 ‘Svalbard’ detained the Russian fishing super-trawler, the ‘Nikolai Afanasiev,’ during its activities in the region of the [Svalbard] archipelago.” In order to avoid further aggravation of the situation, the Russian fishermen obeyed the demand of the Norwegian coastal guard, and then proceeded to the port of Tromsø for further investigation. “States that object in principle to the Fisheries Protection Zone in practice accept Norwegian exercise of authority,” Stokke notes.
Despite this understanding, Russian fisheries authorities have shown their displeasure at the procedure of Norway’s coastal guards. Following the arrest in August, the chairman of the Arkhangelsky Region Fishery Committee Andrei Shirokikh was reported by the Regnum News Agency as highlighting the surreptitious agenda of the Norwegian side. “Detaining our ships on matters of formality, this is politics in its pure state,” Shirokikh said. “We constantly see the complication of mutual relations with Norway in this sphere.”
To provide support for its fishermen, the Russian Navy announced on July 14 its renewed military presence in the Arctic waters, including those of Svalbard. “At the moment, the large anti-submarine warship, the ‘Severomorsk,’ is located in the region and is fulfilling its tasks,” a Russian navy statement read. Such “fulfillment of the Navy’s tasks” insinuates the psychological might of the Russian warships’ presence. The Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, Vladimir Vysotsky, told RIA Novosti that such practice of Russian ships “is already ours and has been since 2004.”
Despite these scuffles—albeit cooled ones—between Russia and Norway, the understanding is that these issues concern the fishery agencies, and do not necessitate higher political intervention. In a press-conference after meeting with his Norwegian counterpart on June 9, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov reiterated the shared cooperation between the two nations, while dismissing any political ramifications emerging from recent trawler disputes.
“We [Russia and Norway] have a special responsibility for the preservation and management of [the Barents Sea] resources,” Lavrov said. “We believe that we interact effectively for the purpose of cooperation development in the struggle against illegal, uncontrollable enterprise. We would like to bring to nothing the cases of detention of Russian fishing vessels by the Norwegian coastal guard.”
The battle for resources
It appears that the future will not necessarily see an amplified dispute over Svalbard’s fishery laws. Instead, the issue of Svalbard’s jurisdiction is more profound, dealing with the question of authority over the territory’s underwater continental shelf.
Norwegian authorities declare the Svalbard continental shelf to be an extension of Norway’s continental shelf, entailing that Norwegian law applies to the Svalbard shelf and is beyond the jurisdiction of the 1920 treaty. With respect to this, Norway’s foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre, while speaking with the Russian journal “Expert,” underlined that other Svalbard treaty signatories are not entitled to engage in oil and gas activities in Svalbard waters without Norwegian consent, since the area is deemed a part of Norway proper. “Irrespective of the views on the extension and application of the [Svalbard] Treaty, Norway without doubt has the right to regulate the state of affairs and monitor events in the zone,” Støre remarked. “This includes the possibility to consider the opening and development of hydrocarbon fields.”
However, other signatory nations, including the United Kingdom and Russia, believe that Svalbard has its own continental shelf, separate from the greater Norwegian one, thus making the former subject to the regulations of the 1920 treaty.
The relatively accessible continental shelf is apparent in terms of prospecting underwater regions. Most commercial sea exploitation, such as hydrocarbon extraction, takes place on a continental shelf. This fact has not eluded Norway; it has been suggested that the country has made its declaration on the Svalbard shelf to secure its own economic interests.
For now, the Svalbard shelf dispute is not a heated one, since it is unclear whether there are signs of rich geological deposits there at all, according to a report from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. “At present, it is not likely to be an issue that’s brought to a head, because the offshore activities and exploration are so far busy working in more southerly areas,” Stokke adds.
Nevertheless, Russia is wasting no time in theorizing over the existence, or absence, of resources on the Svalbard shelf. On July 17, the Russian Agency of Sub-soil Resources (Rosnedra) announced that in 2009, Russian scientists will travel to the Arctic on a $111 million geological mapping program. Thirty-four sectors of the Arctic, including the Svalbard shelf, will be examined for hydrocarbon potential.
The Fridtjof Nansen Institute report concludes that if there are expectations coming from the Svalbard shelf, Norway will face the onus of opening the Northern Barents Sea to other nations for further prospecting and economic development.
In truth, the question is not about Svalbard’s sovereignty; Russia and other states respect the Norwegian position in this regard. The real issues center on the indefinite legality of Norway’s jurisdiction over and under the waters of the island territory.
Once the extent of Svalbard’s underwater resource cache is revealed, further clarification of the signatories’ priorities and more political dialogue will be crucial in avoiding both geostrategic and environmental turmoil. In the meantime, one of the world’s northernmost societies can enjoy the last of the midnight sun glistening on the icy scopes before the dark winter approaches.
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