Russian sabre rattling in the Barents Sea

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In a move widely believed to be a test of resolve for the new Norwegian government and an attempt to influence the bilateral discussions scheduled to take place next week, Russian authorities have threatened to send warships to protect a Russian trawler caught fishing illegally. The new Norwegian cabinet was formed only recently on Monday and is now dealing with its first major foreign challenge.

The Russian trawler, Elektron, had been stopped and boarded by the Norwegian Coast Guard on Saturday morning, in the Barents Sea near the border of an area where fishing rights are disputed. The ship has on repeated occasions been caught severely violating fishing regulations. The charge this time is fishing with illegal equipment designed to catch fish too young to be productive, actions the UN and the scientific community agree are part of the reason the cod stocks of the Atlantic are on the brink of being depleted.

Two Norwegians from the Coast Guard vessel KV Tromsø, an officer and a crew member, were still on board when the Elektron refused to follow the Norwegian Coast Guard's orders to proceed to the Norwegian port of Tromsø. Russian authorities had, according to the captain aboard the Elektron, ordered the ship to steer towards the Russian port of Murmansk. The two Norwegians are still aboard the vessel, and the situation is seen as a clear violation of good conduct between the two neighbouring nations. The Norwegians have not been abused, but their situation is reported as being "unsatisfactory".

Also, another Russian trawler "Arlashkin" became stalled in the Barents Sea after its propeller got entangled in the fishing net dropped in front of the vessel from a Norwegian aircraft. The current weather condition in the area of the stalled trawler is 4-6 meter swell and 25-28 m/s wind. The crew is reported to be attempting to free the entangled propeller.

According to treaties negotiated between Russia and Norway in the 1970’s, these fishing areas were left as topics they "agreed to disagree" over. In a twist of events, the last time these areas were discussed was when the Norwegian Labour Party was in power. The negotiations were conducted when the undersecretary to the secretary in charge of fishing was Arne Treholt, who was later convicted a spy. Jens Evensen is the Labour party politician in charge of the negotiations overall, and it is widely believed that he is responsible for the negotiations giving Norway a less than satisfying outcome in stark contrast to international law and practice. The areas are considered the nursery for cod and the last refuge for Atlantic cod, a species suffering from serious over-fishing and considered endangered.

Norwegian officials said in an interview with the Norwegian broadcaster NRK that this was not the first violation of the fishing regulations by this Russian ship, and the official was also quoted as saying we hope to never see the ship in these waters again.

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