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    Fishing in the waters off Spitzbergen

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    Moscow. (RIA Novosti political commentator Alexander Yurov.) After the incident with the Elektron trawler, the issue of fishing in the Spitzbergen area still remains unresolved.

    It is possible, at least in theory, that similar incidents may occur in future.

    As usual, each side involved in the conflict has its own story. Russian fishermen believe that they strictly follow instructions, whereas the Norwegians are convinced that they are scrupulously guarding their waters. The reasons behind the incident have different interpretations, too. Some accuse the Norwegians of attempting to lay their hands on the best fishing areas, whereas others blame everything on poaching, and praise the Scandinavians for trying to eradicate it. Still others claim that the conflict between the Russian fishermen and the Norwegian coastal guards is not about fishing at all. The Arctic is very rich in hydrocarbons. Oil and gas are much more precious than fish, and the Norwegians and the Russians are trying to delineate their spheres of interests well in advance -- before these deposits start being developed.

    The proponents of each theory have irrefutable arguments to prove it. The fishermen quote legislative and normative acts regulating fishing in the waters off Norway, Farer Islands and the area covered by the North-East Atlantic Fishing Convention (including Spitzbergen and the Medvezhy Island). They contain clear instructions to Russian captains: "The Norwegian decree orders all vessels in the Spitzbergen area to send to Isfjord Radio the same information, as they would when operating in the Norwegian economic zone." There is a note to this order: "The Russian authorities expressly forbid the captains of Russian vessels to comply with this order." Thus the Russian fishermen simply cannot avoid a conflict. Indeed, in the 1970s Norway unilaterally established a 200-mile fish-protection zone around Spitzbergen. Russia, like the U.S.S.R. in the past, has not recognized Norway's rights to any jurisdiction in the area to this day.

    The fish-protection agencies tell their own story. The Polar Research Institute of Sea Fisheries and Oceanography has established that the amount of fish caught in the Spitzbergen area is twice as high as the declared legal catch. Even despite such intensive fishing the Institute still considers fish reserves as adequate. But the problems of ecology and preservation of life on Earth are far from unequivocal. More often than not, opinions depend on the traditions of different countries and on propaganda. In this case there is a clear link to the economy. Immediately after Oslo announced its campaign for the protection of biological resources, Russian fish supplies to Norway dropped by three times compared to the 1990s. The Norwegian authorities have reasons for concern on this score.

    Nevertheless, these two versions cannot fully explain why emotions were running so high around a small fishing vessel, which fled the Spitzbergen area and headed for Russian waters with Norwegian fisheries officials on board. This incident has again revealed the scope of the problem, which has marred Norwegian-Russian relations for years, and is likely to remain unresolved for some time to come.

    Delimitation of Barents Sea waters and shelf has not yet been carried out. It took diplomats 30 years to reduce the disputed area to three percent by way of mutual concessions and compromise. The two sides have a different interpretation of the 1920 Spitzbergen Treaty. Oslo believes that Russia does not have a special status on the archipelago although the Treaty gives every side, Russia included, an equal right to take part in research and economic activities. Russia does not accept the 200-mile fish-protection area, which was unilaterally established by the Norwegian authorities around Spitzbergen.

    Russian fishermen are convinced that the loss of the region will seriously affect the fishing industry. Statistics of the last five years show that the annual average share of the Russian catch of bottom-dwelling fish in this area is about a quarter of the total Russian catch. In the past the sides managed to resolve all outstanding issues my means of negotiations. But this time the conflict has assumed unusual dimensions.

    For several centuries Spitzbergen and its ownership was of no interest to anyone. In the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries the Norwegians and Germans actively hunted for whales off the Western Coast. The Russian Pomors fished off the Eastern Coast. By the beginning of the 20th century the resources were depleted, and the fishermen abandoned the area. The Arctic was no-man's land. It was only by the 1920s that the hydrocarbon reserves found on Spitzbergen revived the interest of the adjacent powers in the area. Russia started building one coal mine after another, but lost interest by mid 1990s.

    But recently the Norwegians have become enthusiastic about the area. They have started rapid development of oil and gas deposits in the Barents Sea area, and built an underwater gas pipeline to the Belosnezhka deposit opposite the Norwegian town of Kirkines. Not surprisingly, Norway embarked on expansion and consolidation of its sovereignty in the area at the same time. Its authorities are implementing a clear-cut policy to introduce ecological standards, rigid fishing rules, and other measures designed to increase control of Arctic territories. At the same time the freedom of Russian fishermen has been drastically limited.

    This situation is not hopeless and can well be resolved to the benefit of both sides. Russia and Norway are about to engage in large-scale cooperation in the oil and gas industry. The development of the Shtokman gas condensate deposit in the Russian part of the Barents Sea is not far off. This is the reason why Russia has displayed interest, somewhat belatedly, in the disputed areas of the Barents Sea. Making sure that its tankers with liquefied gas will be able to pass the waters without encountering trouble is becoming an urgent issue for Russia. This problem has a much bigger price tag than the potential profits from fishing in the Arctic waters. Two Norwegian energy companies StatOil and Hydro, have already been invited to take part in the new oil and gas project. Other steps are possible in the future.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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