12 October 2011, 17:28

Norwegian coastal guards exceed authority, Russia says

Norwegian coastal guards exceed authority, Russia says
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Russian fishermen in the Barents Sea are worried that for some time now, their ships have often been arrested by Norwegian coastal guards – despite the fact that this year, Russia and Norway ratified an agreement that clearly says which country owns which waters in the Barents Sea and in the Arctic Ocean.

Russian fishermen in the Barents Sea are worried that for some time now, their ships have often been arrested by Norwegian coastal guards – despite the fact that this year, Russia and Norway ratified an agreement that clearly says which country owns which waters in the Barents Sea and in the Arctic Ocean.

The Council of Russian fishing industry workers has asked Russia’s authorities to be tougher in defending their interests. 

The last straw that broke the fishermen’s patience was the arrest of the Russian trawler “Sapfir II”. Norwegian coastal guards arrested it near Spitsbergen on September 27, accusing its crew of illegally throwing its catch of fish overboard. The Norwegian inspectors removed the Russian crew from operating the ship, confiscated all the documents and didn’t let the Russians use the radio room. When the crew asked the Norwegians to connect with the Russian fishing service themselves, they refused to do so. 

The ship was taken to the Norwegian port of Tromso, and released only on October 7. Its owner was fined 450,000 Norwegian krones. 

Russia considers the actions of the Norwegian coastal guards illegal, and intends to litigate them. 

The above-mentioned Russian-Norwegian agreement on demarcating the waters was signed in September 2010 and ratified in July 2011. It would be only logical to suppose that now, Russian fishermen shouldn’t have any problems with Norwegian guards. However, instead, Norwegians, for some reason, have only become more active in finding faults with Russian fishermen. The unfortunate “Sapfir” is already the sixth Russian ship arrested by Norwegians near Spitsbergen since the beginning of 2011.

For centuries, the Spitsbergen Archipelago used not to belong to any country. In 1920, an international treaty gave it to Norway, and the countries which signed the treaty were given equal rights to exploit the resources of the waters near the archipelago. The treaty is still in power, and now unites over 50 countries, including Russia and other former Soviet republics. 

In 1947, it was officially recognized that the Soviet Union, along with Norway, has some special economic interests in the Spitsbergen waters. (At present, Russia is the legal successor of the Soviet Union.) However, despite all these documents, disputes over the Spitsbergen Archipelago have never stopped for decades.

According to all the existing international agreements, the waters around Spitsbergen have the status of “open sea” – that is, any country is allowed to fish there. It is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, that is in power in the waters with the status of an open sea. However, Norway seems to ignore this, preferring to stick to a certain document, dating back to 1977, which announces the waters within 200 miles around Spitsbergen “Norway’s fish protecting zone”. No country recognizes this zone, but Norwegian border guards keep patrolling these waters. 

“According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in waters with the status of an open sea, ships are subject only to the laws of the country which owns them,” Director of Fish Producers’ Union of Russia’s North Vasily Nikitin said in an interview to the Voice of Russia:

“I think that some laws should be adopted, which would say clearly that if any inspector checks any ship near Spitsbergen and finds any violations of any rules, he must not arrest the ship, but report to the country to which it belongs. And, it is the country to which the ship belongs, that must punish the crew or the ship’s owning company, in accordance with this country’s laws. After all, if, in this particular case, it would have turned out that the crew really threw the fish overboard, Russia would have punished them even tougher than Norway.”

On Wednesday, a summit of foreign ministers of the countries which belong to the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region took place, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a talk with his Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Støre.

Mr. Lavrov said that Russia does not look upon this incident as a conflict between the two countries. Still, to rule out similar situations in the future, both Russia and Norway should revise all their relevant laws, he said. 

Both ministers have already ordered experts to revise these laws.

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