Crab Fights: Mediating The Future Of Svalbard’s Resources

Not many people know that since 2015, the European Union and Norway have been in a dead-lock over crabs. The Snow Crab Conflict has far-reaching implications for Norway’s vast seafood and energy wealth, and the stalemate is ripe for mediation.

The fight for the snow crab

The snow crab wandered into Norwegian waters from Russia around 2011, and at first both Norwegian and EU vessels were catching the shellfish. In 2015, when snow crab fishing had become a billion-dollar industry, Norway decided that only its fishermen had exclusive rights to fish for them under the Svalbard Treaty of 1920.

The treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago, but provided the 46 signatories equal rights to engage in commercial activities such as fishing. Additionally, as a European Economic Area member, Norway has access to EU markets at the price of giving the EU access to Norwegian resources. Norway established a Fisheries Protection Zone around the islands, arguing that Svalbard’s 200 nautical-mile-zone and continental shelf – areas unmentioned in the treaty – are a part of the Norwegian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a decision the EU disagrees with. The snow crab is a species that lives on the continental shelf.

Informal negotiations continued between the two parties until 2017, when the EU issued twenty licenses to fish for snow crab, upholding their position that the Svalbard Treaty’s principles of “equal access to economic activity on the archipelago” also applied to the maritime zone and the continental shelf. Norway responded to this action by arresting a Latvian snow crab fishing vessel, threatening the same for future offenders, and stating that “Norway will not give away one single crab”.

Therefore, when the EU reissued twenty licenses for 2018, Norwegian officials deemed this as the EU aborting the negotiations. The issue has been deadlocked since, though both parties have publicly expressed willingness to continue the talks.

The hidden conflict: why crabs matter

The Snow Crab Conflict is about more than fishing rights. The U.S. Government estimates that the Arctic holds 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits, and “as a sedentary resource harvested on the continental shelf, it’s possible that the way Norway treats this [snow crab] issue could set a precedent if they find oil, gas, minerals and genetic resources on the continental shelf. If Norway opens it up for extraction, that would imply that all signatory states would need to be treated like Norwegian citizens,” says Harald Sakarias Brøvig Hansen of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Neither the EU or Norway acknowledges future potential resources to be a part of the conflict, but one could argue that it plays a part – especially in the matter of agreeing on a joint interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty and why it needs to be updated. Furthermore, as long as the two parties are not admitting to this hidden conflict, the focus will continue to be on how to solve the dispute over snow crab fishing rights.

What can the EU do to solve the conflict?

The conflict is currently a mutually damaging stalemate, with no end in sight. The loss of income for EU fishermen and the diminishing of Norway’s relationship with the EU is enhancing the ripeness for intervention.

The EU is getting pressured by member states whose fishermen are losing jobs and income for each day they are obstructed from fishing for snow crab. If the European Commission does not take further action other than issuing fishing licences, the hurting stalemate will continue. Norway holds the upper position as it has exclusive access to the high-valued resource and the claim to potential future resources, but this position is insecure. Being a small country in the north, it relies on the EU for trade. With European markets buying almost all Norwegian energy and two-thirds of its seafood export, the EU has some options.

The drastic option is to impose sanctions on Norway, but considering the looming Brexit and the fact that the United Kingdom is also a nation with large energy and maritime resources, the EU can switch to trading with the UK instead of Norway. Either option would hurt Norway economically and possibly force them back to negotiating.

This is where mediation could be the solution

Restart the talks between the two parties and present possible options for solving the conflict. For Norway this would mean keeping their substantial energy and seafood exports to the EU, as well as preserving the good relationship with the union. They could simultaneously get in front of the issue of Arctic policy regarding future resource extraction, if they admit to the hidden conflict.

In the case of the EU, it means possible access to a billion-dollar industry, saving jobs for EU fishermen and relieving pressure from several member states. If the two parties can move beyond the snow crab issue to agree on an interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty, or an update to it, it might even solve the conflict itself and set a legal precedent for Arctic policies in the future. It could not be more timely.


Ola Eloranta is a MA Candidate in Political Strategy and Communication with specialisation in Foreign Policy at the University of Kent – Brussels School of International Studies. He has been involved in politics for 10 years, and has a personal interest in EU Mediation Initiatives.

Ola Eloranta

Posted by Ola Eloranta

Ola is an MA Candidate in Political Strategy and Communication with specialisation in Foreign Policy at the Brussels School of International Studies (University of Kent).

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