Incidents in the Barents

There have already been quite a few minor incidents between Russia and Norway over fishing rights. One of the best known was a dramatic chase that took place near the Svalbard archipelago in October 2005, when two Norwegian fishing inspectors intercepted and then boarded a Russian trawler, the Elektron, that they suspected had been fishing illegally. The authorities ordered the captain, Valery Yarantsev, to head for the Norwegian port of Tromsoe for questioning, but to their horror they watched the Elektron speed off towards Russian waters, taking them along as captives. For the next five days the Norwegian coast guard pursued the trawler, eventually intercepting it and ordering the release of the two hostages. The Russian authorities later fined the captain $3,900 for poaching, although he was acquitted of detaining the fishing inspectors.

Again, in November 2007, the Norwegian coast guard detained a Russian trawler, the Tyndra, on suspicion of illegally fishing in its waters and forced the captain to surrender 170 tons of herring. It is easy to think that similar incidents in the future could easily escalate and spiral out of control as they nearly did in the early 1990s, when the Norwegian coast guard opened fire on Icelandic vessels.31

The clashes took place at a time when an increasing number of Icelandic fishermen were heading to the Barents Sea, regarding its waters as a plentiful and lucrative area of the high seas. This was mainly because the temperature and salinity of local waters changed significantly around 1990, providing cod with almost ideal conditions in which to thrive. In 1993 the third-party catch in the Loophole was estimated to be a 'moderate' 12,000 tonnes - although at this time the Norwegian coast guard had no powers to intercept and search foreign trawlers - but the following year it grew dramatically to 60,000 tonnes. This was almost entirely because Icelandic fishermen had turned away from their own waters, where cod stocks had suddenly become harder to find, and looked further afield. Emergency talks were held in Stockholm between the various foreign and fisheries ministers of Iceland and Norway, but they soon broke down, and the four ministers left hurriedly without even holding a scheduled news briefing.

It was not long before some people started to sound menacing. At a meeting with a minister from the Faroe Islands, the Russian Fisheries Minister, Vladimir Korelski, 'signalled an intention' to deploy a warship in the Loophole. And representatives of the fishermen's union and of the Norwegian Fishing Vessels Owner Association also sounded threatening when they predicted that, unless an agreement could be negotiated between the governments, 'Norwegian fishermen may have to take things into their own hands (including) the cutting of nets'. The Norwegian Fisherman's Union also called for a boycott of any Norwegian firms that supplied Icelandic trawlers and even threatened to use their vessels to blockade harbours.

The state of simmering tension reached a climax in the summer of 1994, when on at least two occasions shots were actually fired in the Svalbard fisheries zone. On 14 June, the Norwegian coast guard boarded four Icelandic trawlers and cut their fishing nets, firing a warning shot at a fifth. The next day, Bjoern Tore Godal, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, warned that his country was prepared to take whatever steps it deemed necessary to prevent the Icelandic vessels from fishing in its protection zone around the Svalbard archipelago, and things got even worse five days later, when the captain of the Icelandic trawler, Drangey, claimed that the Norwegian coast guard had attempted to ram his vessel. Later that day, the captains of seven Icelandic trawlers in the Svalbard zone announced that they would leave the area altogether, but they left open the possibility that they would move into the waters of the Loophole, further south, instead of returning home to Iceland.

The most serious single incident took place in August 1994, when shots were exchanged. It appeared that the Icelandic trawler, Hagangur II, used small arms to open fire at a Norwegian coast guard vessel, the Senja, that was attempting to stop it from fishing inside a restricted zone around the Svalbard archipelago. The Norwegians gave chase, firing non-explosive shells at Hagangur II before boarding and then escorting it to Tromsoe. Talks resumed at the start of the 1995 fishing season, but broke down in April over the size of the quota. The matter was initially settled in December 1996, when all three parties signed the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, and a regional accord between the three main contestants and the EU was finally signed in December 1999. Under the deal, Iceland won a small share of the cod stock in the Loophole in return for surrendering any fishing rights for cod in the fisheries protection zone around Svalbard.

There have been some other incidents around Svalbard. In the spring of 2001, when the Norwegian coast guard seized the Russian trawler, Chernigov, Norway's ambassador in Moscow was presented with a sharp formal protest, and Russian patrol vessels were later deployed to 'protect' Russian trawlers from the Norwegian coast guard. The following year the Russian Northern Fleet made the quite dramatic move of sending its large anti-submarine warfare destroyer, Severomorsk, to the Svalbard waters, and in 2004 fears of escalation prompted the Norwegian foreign ministry to abort the planned seizure of the Russian trawler, Okeanor.

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