Norway: Snow crab wars edition

(AP Photo/Klas Stolpe, File)

Who knew things were so fractious all over – and I do mean all – over the globe? Even in the frozen north, Norway and Latvia are fixin’ to duke it out over, well…crabs. But it’s actually more complicated than crustacean catches.


Norway’s Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing arguments on whether EU ships can fish for snow crab off the Arctic islands north of Norway, in a case that could decide who has the right to explore for oil and minerals in the region.

At stake is whether EU vessels have the right to catch snow crab, whose meat is considered a delicacy by gourmets in Japan and South Korea, in the same way than Norwegian vessels do.

Apparently, a couple of years ago, a Latvian fishing concern applied for permission to operate in those waters, after being caught fishing for snow crab there with only an EU license. They were turned down on the premise that only Norwegian vessels were allowed to fish in the area.

In the intervening time, the Latvians have taken the issue to court and the final decision will have big implications for the entire region.

On the Latvian side, the argument is that something called the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 clearly allows them, as signatories, access to fish in the Arctic waters there. The treaty, in a nutshell, gave Norway sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, subject to certain conditions and access for other signatories. The pertinent section seems pretty forthright when one reads it.

Screenshot Arctic Portal

Who lives on Svalbard and the other islands? Not Norwegians – it’s mostly Russians and Ukrainians (Confused yet?).

This is where it gets unneccessarily complicated. See, the Norwegians don’t “interpret” the treaty the way everyone else does.

…At the heart of the dispute are different interpretations of the Spitsbergen Treaty, the 1920 legal document governing the Svalbard archipelago.

The accord recognises “the full and absolute sovereignty of Norway” over Svalbard, but also allows other nationals from signatory countries to “enjoy equally the rights of fishing and hunting in the territories.

As a result, Russia is able to maintain a mining community in the archipelago, located halfway between Europe’s mainland and the North Pole, in a region its Northern Fleet transits en route to the Atlantic.

Likewise, Latvian fishing company SIA North STAR insists its vessels ought to be able to fish snow crab in the wider seas around the archipelago, but Norway restricts that right to Norwegian boats.

Contrary to most other signatories to the treaty — almost 50 states, including Latvia, France, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia — Norway uses a restrictive interpretation of the treaty which refers to the islands of Svalbard and “their territorial waters”.


A frozen north version of the “depends on what your definition of is is” situation. And a lucrative stand-off waiting for the Norwegian Supreme Court and judgment day. The crab dispute is merely the first volley in a potential resources battle over who owns or who has exclusive rights to what is sitting beneath the continental shelf just offshore of Svalbard. The Norwegians have dug in hard, insisting that “territorial waters” means 12 miles out from shore belong to them. The other nations who signed the treaty giving Norway sovereignty on the archipelago beg to differ.

…”When no one, not even Norway’s closest allies, supports Norway’s interpretation, it’s because that interpretation is wrong”, the lawyer for the Latvian shipowner, Hallvard Ostgard, has argued.

“To simplify, the question in this case is the following: Do we (Norwegians) have the exclusive right to all maritime resources … or do we have to share them with the international community“, he told Norwegian daily Aftenposten.

I’m not sure this will be the end of it if the local Supreme Court comes down in Norway’s favor. It hardly seems as if this is neutral territory for the arbitration of an international treaty, but I suppose it had to start somewhere. Latvian company SIA North STAR hasn’t had any luck so far bucking the hometown judicial system.


…In a sign of the case’s importance, it will be heard before all of the judges of the Supreme Court over four days and broadcast live on its website.

SIA North STAR lost its case in the district court and on appeal.

Yeah, no. If I were the Latvians, I’d already be planning the next move.

The natural resource/rare mineral/fossil fuel rights are going to be hard fought and won.

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