Significantly lower catch figures are reported from Russian trawlers fishing in the Norwegian economic zone in the Barents Sea. If cod fishing were to increase in the Russian zone, it is worrying, says the Chairman of the Norwegian Fishermen's Association, Kåre Heggebø.
"We have received feedback that catch numbers registered from Russian fishing vessels in the Norwegian economic zone are much smaller than previously," says the Chairman of the Norwegian Fishermen's Association, Kåre Heggebø, to High North News.
"We hope and assume that this is due to what is also affecting our members, namely that there is less fish available in the sea, and not wrongful registrations," Heggebø adds.
Fishes less in the Norwegian zone
Every year, Norway and Russia negotiate annual total quotas for the joint stocks in the Barents Sea, for cod and pollock, among others. This is carried out by the Joint Norwegian–Russian Fisheries Commission.
The fishery agreement between Norway and Russia facilitates Norwegians and Russians to catch in both countries' economic zones. Much of Russia's fishing for cod takes part in the Norwegian economic zone. This has been in the interest of both countries due to biological concerns.
Russia's cod quota in the Norwegian zone has been around 200,000 tonnes over several years. However, numbers from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries show that the Russian cod catch has gradually decreased in the past years.
In 2020, the Russians fished about 100,000 tonnes, while the figure was 73,845 tonnes in 2022.
In 2023, until the end of June, Russian fishing vessels have reported figures of 61 109 tonnes of cod in the Norwegian economic zone. The corresponding number for Norwegian vessels in Russia's economic zone in the Barents Sea is 2024 tonnes.
Lower total quota
This summer, the newspaper Fiskeribladet wrote about how many Norwegian fishers have reacted to what they consider to be major Russian activity in the Norwegian zone. "The activity is considered disproportional to the catches that have been registered," said Chairman of the association, Heggebø, to the newspaper.
As Heggebø mentions, lower catch figures from Russian trawlers in the Barents Sea could be due to biological conditions.
When the fishery commission's delegations negotiated last year, the total quota for the North-East Arctic Cod decreased by 20 percent compared to the quota for 2022. The quota is expected to further decrease next year.
"The cod stock is now reduced, and the total quota has decreased. It is often the case that the smaller the stock, the lower the catches per unit of time for a given boat," explains Senior Researcher Anne-Kristin Jørgensen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute to HNN.
Young cod stay further east
Furthermore, neither Jørgensen nor Heggebø is familiar with Russian trawlers now fishing more of the cod in the Russian zone in the Barents Sea.
"But if the Russians were to fish more of their stock in their zone, that is not a desirable development, biologically speaking. In such a case, they would be fishing more of the young fish," explains Heggebø.
And that would worry the association leader.
"It is about the fact that the fish in the spawning stage mostly stay in the Russian zone. If the cod fishery increases here, there will also be more extraction of young and immature fish. It is worrying for the stock – which is already in a relatively sharp decline," he points out.
Senior Researcher Jørgensen adds that it is most common that the vast majority of Russian fishing boats stay in the Norwegian economic zone for large parts of the year, but also in the Fish Protection Zone at Svalbard.
"It is typical to have a fishing pattern that changes throughout the year. At times, there are many in the conservation zone and many in the Norwegian economic zone. Other times, a good portion is in the Russian zone, preferably in the western parts. They simply follow the fish."
Repair of fishing vessels
Jørgensen also points to the debate on the Russian side, which deals with the challenge of getting fishing vessels repaired.
A lack of maintenance options can conceivably affect the number of fishing vessels operating in the north. It is still unclear whether the lack of repair options has affected the fishing fleet so far.
After Norway further restricted the port ban for Russian vessels in August 2022, Russian fishing vessels can only call at the ports of Kirkenes, Båtsfjord, and Tromsø. Here, the vessels can unload fish, while the ban on professional assistance applies, for example, to technical support in connection with repair and maintenance. The exception is emergency repairs.
"Over a year ago, there was already discussion on the Russian side that lack of access to ports in Europe could become a problem."
The FNI researcher says that more than two-thirds of the Russian fishing fleet in the Barents Sea was built or has been repaired abroad. Russian shipyards do not have the same capacity or advanced expertise on the fishing fleet.
Norwegian shipyards have thus been important, also because of their good location near the fishing grounds.
"They have been struggling for years in Russia and have introduced several programs and support systems for the country to become better at building civilian vessels. They have primarily had expertise in military vessels," she says and adds:
"When the latest specification of the ban on repairs to Russian fishing vessels came in the spring, there was a new round of discussion. The fear is that boats will eventually be unable to go out to sea if they do not receive the necessary maintenance when needed."
The protection of the fisheries cooperation is of particular interest.
Still very important to Russia
FNI researcher Jørgensen has long followed the fisheries debate on the Russian side and says there are many indications that Russia, despite the debate surrounding the port ban, has a great interest in continuing fisheries cooperation – and that this very issue is often "shielded."
How does Russia view fisheries cooperation with Norway? Is there any indication that they could put it at risk?
"No, on the contrary," she emphasizes.
"Russia has gradually become harsher in its tone towards Norway as the sanctions have been further restricted and new ones have been added; the pattern is that they talk a lot about Norway, but when it comes to fisheries cooperation, it seems that this is so important that it is shielded. The statements coming from government officials support the collaboration," she adds.
The only hint that Russia could end the cooperation was the statement in the protocol during the fisheries negotiations last year. The statement said that if Norway came up with further port bans against Russian trawlers, Russia would reserve the right to suspend cooperation.
"But I have not seen that a single public official on the Russian side has spoken more about this. The debate has mostly taken place on the Norwegian side. I have not seen any major debate about this in Russian fishing circles, companies, or among scientists."
"For Russia, it is much more important to have access to Norwegian waters than vice versa. The best fisheries are in the west. For the Russian fishing industry, losing access to the Norwegian economic zone would be bad," Jørgensen points out.
We share one of the most important stocks with Russia.
A global responsibility
How do you view the relationship between Norway and Russia in the fisheries sector now?
"We have some minimal contact at an administrative level, but it is in a completely different format to what we had before the war in Ukraine broke out," says Heggebø of the Norwegian Fishermen's Association.
He adds that the important contact between the researchers seems to be "okay." Norwegian and Russian marine scientists, among other things, give quota advice to the Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission.
Furthermore, he clarifies that being concerned about fisheries cooperation is natural.
"We share one of the most important stocks with Russia, and we have a global responsibility to take care of and to ensure that it is harvested sustainably."