Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 05:08:01 PM EST
Norwegian exporters and food authorities alike are scratching their heads over a Russian ban on all imports of fresh Norwegian fish from January 1. The ban, which will cost salmon producers at least € 380,000 per day unless dropped within a week, is ostensibly due to alarming findings of heavy metals in Norwegian salmon.
However, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority reacts with incomprehension to the Russian measurements, which are many times higher than its own. Even the EU, not known for its enthusiasm about salmon imports, supports Norway in this case. Tests conducted by Singapore have also cleared the salmon, fueling speculation that the ban is politically motivated. But what might such a motivation consist in?
The quality daily Aftenposten summed up the situation on December 29:
Singapore health authorities concluded that fresh Norwegian farmed salmon is safe to eat, and Norway's Minister of Fisheries has promised to help solve the related squabble with Russia.
Russia's blanket New Year ban on fresh Norwegian farmed salmon on the grounds of high lead and cadmium levels has begun to unnerve other markets, despite documentation of successful quality testing.
Singapore's veterinary and food authority concluded that Norwegian farmed salmon did not contain heavy metals and was safe for consumption, Channel Asia News reported Thursday.
According to the Newspapers' New Bureau (ANB) export sources claim that the contamination charges are not the real reason for the import dispute, and that Russian importers are also baffled by recent developments.
Though Norway's government hesitates to make that association, many suspect the ban is related to recent skirmishes in the Barents Sea. In October, the Norwegian Coast Guard arrested two Russian ships off Bjørnøya for illegal reloading.
A more dramatic incident the same month saw the trawler 'Elektron' escape to Russian waters with two Norwegian inspectors on board and four Norwegian Coast Guard vessels in hot pursuit. The skipper volunteered that Russian authorities had encouraged him to flee. In any case, said authorities later dismissed the evidence of environmental crime against the trawler. The Norwegians were not amused: "The 'Elektron' has been a notorious scoundrel at sea and is behind a series of serious violations of fishery regulations," said Steve Olsen, head of Coast Guard North.
The Russian trawler 'Elektron' was pursued by the Norwegian Coast Guard for more than a day.
The 'Elektron' incident has a noteworthy background. Russia disputes the 1977 Norwegian claim to a 200 nautical miles 'exclusive fishing zone' around the Svalbard archipelago, which Norway says is an extension of its continental shelf. (The phrase is a misnomer inasmuch as Norway does not assert exclusive rights to fisheries but rather to enforce environmental regulations on same.)
The Tromsø police commissioner, Truls Fyhn, suggested that the trawler's escape was a matter of political expediency and not, as Oslo asserts, of rough seas. The Coast Guard vessels pursuing 'Elektron' had on board the Navy Special Forces, capable of bording operations in challenging conditions.
The drama is also playing out just as Norwegian oil companies Statoil and Norsk Hydro are lobbying hard to take part in Russia's development of its offshore Stockman field in the Barents. They will hardly want to offend the Russians at this point. The Norwegian state has large ownership stakes in both companies....
Meanwhile, the local chief for Amnesty International in Norway accused Norwegian authorities of intentionally ignoring human rights abuses in Russia, precisely because of the potential oil and gas revenues at stake. Petter Eide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday that "Norway overlooks human rights violations in northwest Russia so as not to harm the negotiating climate with the Russians."
The 1,400 square kilometre large Stockman (Shtokman) field contains 3,200 bn cm of gas, nearly 2.5 times the volume in Troll, Norway's biggest gas field. A decision as to Norwegian involvement is expected by Easter. The operator, Gazprom, is 51% controlled by the Russian government.
In general, estimates suggest that the Arctic holds as much as 25% of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources and a third of the Norwegian ones. 90% of the latter are yet to be discovered. Shortly after taking seat in October last year, Norway's 'red-green' majority government announced that it will allow oil exploration in the Barents Sea despite environmentalist opposition.
However, a 30-years old border dispute between Norway and Russia over a 155,000 square kilometres zone – the so-called 'grey area' – in the Barents Sea has long prevented either side from exploiting fully the treasures of the seabed. The grey area is estimated to hold 12 bn barrels of oil equivalent; some maps show a geological structure almost four times the size of Stockman.
The Barents Sea. The area marked 'Fiskerivernsone' is the misnamed 'exclusive fishing zone.' Note the duly colored 'grey area.'
In addition, most of the other 38 bn barrels believed to reside in the Barents Sea have been placed off-limits by the dispute, which Russia has long refused to negotiate. Norway favors the median line or equidistance principle, used to divide the North Sea among adjacent countries, while Russia insists on the sector principle.
The chairman of Russia’s Federation Council’s international relations committee, Mikhail Margelov, affirmed in December that the real cause of the recent controversy between Russia and Norway is not fishing resources but petroleum deposits.
A resolution of the border dispute may at last be in sight. Negotiations have been underway since November, with Russia's natural resources minister Jurij Trutnev hinting about a compromise. An agreement acceptable to Russia would almost certainly include a roll-back of Norway's exclusive fishing zone around Svalbard, which may very well turn out to contain ample hydrocarbons in its own right.
And that, in turn, takes us full circle. Could the mysterious Russian ban on Norwegian fish be a political shot across the bow in regard to this issue?