Researchers have called the territory of the Arctic Ocean shelf the largest oil and gas deposits on Earth. The Arctic countries plan not only to develop the hydrocarbon deposits, but also the fishing industry. However, a good catch in the northern seas can lead to political problems.
Potential hydrocarbon deposits above the Polar Circle are estimated at 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Nonetheless, the Arctic countries haven’t forgotten about the fish resources. In the so-called Atlantic section of the Arctic Ocean, over a million tons of fish are caught annually. Six hundred thousand tons is Russia's share, which amounts to about 15% of all fish caught by Russia in the world’s oceans. The Spitsbergen archipelago is one of the busiest areas in the region where, according to some sources, up to 460 thousand tons of fish and sea products are sourced on a yearly basis. The fish sourced in the area includes cod, haddock, pollack and Arctic cod. Russian fishermen catch about 170 thousand tons in that area. But not every voyage ends in success, says Alexander Savelyev, a representative of RosRybolovstvo (the Russian Fisheries Agency).
“Some time ago cases when our fishing boats were detained in the area of Spitsbergen archipelago have become more frequent. But the intervention of the Russian Foreign Ministry and public attention apparently helped with the task. At least so far there has been no such incident this year. With the help of a joint Russian-Norwegian commission on fishing we manage to regulate the fishing rules and the fishing volumes.”
The international legal status of Spitsbergen is regulated by the Paris Treaty of 1920, which was signed by 40 countries. The archipelago is part of Norway's sovereign territory, while the member states have equal free access to Spitsbergen’s waters.
Yet later it turned out that Oslo has its own view of that document. In the 1970s, Norway unilaterally set a 200-mile fish protection zone around Spitsbergen – ignoring the international rules and laws on fishing, says the RosRybolovstvo's representative.
“Russia has never accepted and will not accept the acts on Spitsbergen introduced by Norway. That region is under international management. And the Norwegian side can be viewed only as the managers of the archipelago. However, it does not mean that they can introduce their own fishing rules, specifically towards the Russian fishermen.”
Despite the disagreements, both Moscow and Oslo talk about the need for joint management of the fishing resources. Experts are hoping to work out the fishing volumes as early as this Autumn, i.e. by the next meeting of the Russian-Norwegian commission on fishing. In that manner all grounds for the detention of Russian fishermen can be removed, says Alexander Glubokov from the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography.
“Russia and Norway are examples of successful interaction in managing fish resources. We cooperate on the methods of regulating fishing volumes, such as fishing quotas, the minimum size of the mesh dimensions of the fishing gear, etc.”
Experts believe that the work on an international agreement on fishing in the Arctic seas will be accomplished in the next few years. Russia also has other plans. Five years ago it was announced that Russia intended to build a fish processing plant on Spitsbergen. So far, fishing ships have been supplying Norwegian fish processing plants, and many European countries have already expressed their desire to buy all of the produce from the future Russian fish processing facility. Norway is clearly not interested in the fulfillment of Russia’s project. However, Moscow hopes to be able to persuade its partners.