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Trawler’s case tests Norwegian control over Arctic archipelago’s resources

Norway’s supreme court will hear a case involving a Latvian trawler in one of the biggest recent challenges to the Nordic country’s control over natural resources close to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

The court will begin to assess from Tuesday whether the trawler needs a Norwegian licence to fish for snow crab in an extended area around Svalbard in a case that will test Oslo’s interpretation of the archipelago’s territorial waters.

It is a rare case where Russia’s view is shared by both the EU and UK while Norway stands almost alone in its insistence that only it has rights to the archipelago’s natural resources, including potentially lucrative reserves of oil and gas.

“Norway is in a bit of a quandary,” said Pierre-Olivier Savoie, partner at Savoie Laporte law firm in Paris, which is acting for the Latvian trawler in this case and an arbitration hearing pending at the World Bank.

He argued that pressure on Norway over Svalbard’s territorial waters is likely to increase whether it wins or loses the current appeal, which unusually will be heard by a full supreme court over the next four days.

Snow crab: the EU hands out 20 licences a year to fish the prized and lucrative delicacy © terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/Reuters

Svalbard, home to the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, occupies a geopolitically critical position in the Arctic, between Greenland, the North Pole, continental Europe and Russia.

Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago is undisputed thanks to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. The treaty gives rights for fishing, hunting, mining and other commercial activities on land and in “territorial waters” to all states that signed the treaty, which now number 46 including the UK, US, and many EU members. Russia is alone in using the treaty to have established mines on Svalbard and a town, Barentsburg.

Norway argues that “territorial waters” apply only to the 12 nautical miles around the islands. But SIA North Star, the Latvian company which owns the trawler that was stopped from catching snow crab off Svalbard in 2017, contends that the term applies to Svalbard’s continental shelf, which extends 200 nautical miles out from the islands.

The EU, UK and Russia all believe the treaty applies to the much larger area. Victory would give SIA North Star and other non-Norwegian trawlers the possibility to catch snow crab in the extended region.

Locator map showing Svalbard, Norway, Latvia and Russia

Norway’s “is not a particularly serious argument in my view, as a matter of international law”, said Savoie. “However, the question is whether the Norwegian Supreme Court will rubber stamp the Norwegian’s government’s position.”

Norway’s foreign ministry said the meaning of territorial waters was “unambiguous”. It added: “There is no legal basis for a claim to apply any of the provisions of the Svalbard Treaty granting equal treatment rights to foreign nationals beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial waters of the archipelago.”

The EU hands out 20 licences a year to fish snow crab, a prized and lucrative delicacy, with most of them currently awarded to Latvian companies. The SIA North Star-operated trawler Senator had received permission from the EU, but not from Norway, to catch snow crab in 2017, and was fined by Norwegian authorities. Norway’s supreme court approved that fine in 2019.

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