Svalbard standoffFrench trawler Emeraude is among those operating on the disputed quotas. Photo: ENAFA

A group of European fishing vessel operators are heading for a landmark legal case, taking the Norwegian government to court to seek a ruling on quota they see as having been stolen from them.

The European North Atlantic Fisheries Association (ENAFA) represents fishing companies in Poland, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal which have track records of fishing in the Svalbard area going back more than fifty years. According to ENAFA chairman Diek Parlevliet, the situation with the Norwegian authorities has been stable and largely amicable over a long period – right up to when Brexit wrecked the longstanding equilibrium.

“This is a cod war,” he said.

European and UK fishing vessels are currently fishing in Northern waters – working on a quota allocated by the European Union that doesn’t tally with Norway’s ideas of what the quota should be. Norway has taken a robust stance, threatening to arrest vessels that overshoot the Norwegian quota limits , just as that limit is likely to be reached this month – which is coincidentally exactly when Norwegian voters are mulling over their options for this month’s general election.

“Norway has never been difficult before now,” he said. “A percentage of the Barents Sea TAC has been allocated to the EU. But Norway has taken advantage of Brexit to argue that the UK should have a smaller quota, and to cut the quota shares for both the UK and EU.”

Taking the Norwegian government to court

Diek Parlevliet explained that the proportion of the TAC that would under usual circumstances have been allocated to the EU and the UK would have been 32,800 tonnes in 2021. But under the Brexit TCA, 25% of the Svalbard quota quota goes to the UK – and this is where things have diverged from longstanding procedure.

‘The UK should have got around 8000 tonnes, and the European operators 24,546 tonnes. Instead, Norway allows the UK 5500 tonnes, and 17,855 tonnes to Europe,” he said.

“There is no explanation or reasoning for this very large reduction, and it is extraordinary what they are doing to utilise Brexit in this way. Europe is not prepared to accept this and the member states are behind the fleet all the way,” he said.

As the standoff has become increasingly acute and the possibility of flashpoints at sea come closer, ENAFA has set in motion a legal process to challenge the legality of the Norwegian government’s position, although no date has yet been set for this to go to court.

“It is really weird and nobody can understand where they are coming from on this. Norway takes back around 10,000 tonnes of cod, which is a vanishingly small amount compared to their 400,000 tonne TAC, and of that they have to give half to Russia,” he said.

“Why are they risking a trade war, which is a real possibility, for such a small gain? Norway is a great producer of seafood and supplies the largest and most wealthy market, which is the European Union, and they stand to lose out on a tremendous scale if this goes wrong for them.”

All of the ENAFA members in Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, UK and Poland have track records of fishing activity in those waters going back 70 years – predating both European Union membership and 200-mile EEZs – and for some their prospects depend on the stability of access to this fishery.

Futures in the balance

“But there are companies in Spain whose future hang in the balance because of this,” said Iván López of fishing company Pesquera Ancora, who also also chairs the Long Distance AC.

“One company has already cancelled an order for a new vessel due to the uncertainty of the situation. So there are real consequences here in terms of jobs and livelihoods,” he said.

“We’re not asking for more, but to maintain what we already have. What we are asking of the EU is that they be as stern with Norway as they are with their own member states. Then we would be satisfied. Norway sells €1.60 billion worth of seafood to the European market every year, and they don’t seem to be too worried.”

He added that Norway’s position on mackerel, having unilaterally increased its quotas this year by 53%, also demands action by the European Union.

“We are seeing some of these products appearing tariff-free in EU markets. This is a trading partner with a history of meddling in EU markets, but the EU lets them do what they want,” Iván López said.

Norway has reiterated its position, and Minister of Fisheries and Seafood Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen has stated that action will be taken as soon as EU fishing vessels overshoot the quota limits set by Norway.

“As repeatedly stated Norway has the sole regulatory power in the Fisheries Protection Zone around Svalbard and all activities must be carried out in accordance with applicable Norwegian law,” stated senior adviser at the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries Øyvinn Myge.

“Any fishing activity carried out by EU vessels in contravention of Norwegian regulations is illegal. Vessels fishing illegally in Norwegian waters will be arrested and prosecuted.”

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