Strong Criticism Towards New Environmental Regulations on Svalbard

The Norwegian Environment Agency presented a proposal for new environmental regulations on Svalbard in January. Several business and tourism actors have reacted to the process and the proposals to restrict traffic and outdoor activities on the archipelago. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)

The government should postpone the implementation of major invasive environmental regulations until the Svalbard White Paper is to be processed next year. That is the opinion of Storting representative Bengt Rune Strifeldt (Progress Party), who is supported by the leader of Visit Svalbard, Ronny Brunvoll.

In a motion to the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) this week, several Storting representatives from the Progress Party advocates that the government should postpone the implementation of the recently proposed environmental regulations on Svalbard. The representatives believe that this should be coordinated with the processing of the Svalbard White Paper - which has been announced to be launched in 2024 and which will present the course of action of the Svalbard policy in the time coming.

In January 2023, The Norwegian Environment Agency presented its recommendations for changes in the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act and its associated regulations.

In the motion, which is to be processed in the Standing Committee on Energy and the Environment, the Progress Party politicians Strifeldt, Sivert Bjørnstad, Terje Halleland, and Marius Arion Nilsen point to the fact that the agency's suggestions have led to strong reactions from the tourism industry and the local population in Longyearbyen.

Central Points in the Norwegian Environment Agency recommendations after the hearing:

Disembarking in a protected area: The disembarkation of tourist businesses is proposed to be regulated in the protected area on Svalbard, so that disembarkation here can take place in 43 mapped areas in connection with tourist activities. The hearing motion will be maintained and a disembarking area will be added on Sjuøyane based on responses from the hearing.

Polar bears: A proposal has been made to ban seeking ut polar bears and a requirement of a 500-meter distance to polar bears. The Norwegian Environment Agency recommends that the proposal be maintained and that a ban on unnecessary disturbance of polar bears is specified.

Walruses: A ban on motor traffic in the sea closer than 300 meters from a walrus roost was proposed. The Norwegian Environment Agency recommends a new and reduced distance limit of 150 meters from the roost and a maximum speed limit of 5 knots 300 meters from the roost.

Passenger delimitation in protected areas: It is proposed that ships sailing in protected areas may have a maximum of 200 passengers on board. The Norwegian Environment Agency recommends that the proposal be maintained.

Ice-breaking: In the hearing, a ban on breaking fast ice and ice that is about to settle was proposed. Following input from the hearings, the Norwegian Environment Agency recommends that the ban on ice-breaking be limited to only apply to land-fast ice.

Motor traffic on sea ice: In the hearing, a ban on motor traffic on sea ice after 1 March on selected fjords for visitors and permanent residents was proposed, with several exceptions, e.g. to facilitate the need to get between areas and to cabins. The Norwegian Environment Agency recommends that the proposal be maintained.

Drones: In the hearing, a ban on the use of drones in protected areas and a ban on the use of drones at bird cliffs was proposed. The governor can grant permission for the use of drones, e.g. in connection with scientific investigations. These proposals are maintained.

Strong criticism

- Forkastelig, sier Bengt Rune Strifeldt, Fremskrittspartiet i Finnmark. (Foto: Stortinget).
Bengt Rune Strifeldt (Progress Party) is representing Finnmark in the Storting. (Photo: Stortinget)

On behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, the Norwegian Environment Agency submitted proposals for changes to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act for a hearing, of which the deadline was the 1st of May 2022. A total of 99 responses were received from the hearing.

In January 2023, the Norwegian Environment Agency presented its recommendations to the Ministry.

As HNN has previously reported, several local actors protested against the suggestions before Christmas and asked for the matter to be sent back.

"Based on the feedback we have received from organizations and industries on Svalbard, it is clear that many feel that the process has not been good enough. Many worry that the measures will be implemented without a better impact assessment," says Storting representative for Finnmark and member of the Standing Committee on Business and Industry, Bengt Rune Strifeldt (Progress Party) to High North News.

If the changes are introduced, they will create great difficulties for the further operations of the tourism industry in Svalbard.

Consequences for Svalbard's tourism industry

A great number of tourism businesses and business organizations believe that the Norwegian Environment Agency's proposal has serious shortcomings. They think that the Instruction for Official Studies has not been followed, that sufficient impact analyses have not been carried out, and that the basis of figures is incorrect. It is also claimed that the tourism industry has not been involved, writes the Storting representatives and add:

All industry actors strongly criticize the proposals and believe that if the changes are introduced, they will create great difficulties for the further operations of the tourism industry in Svalbard. We emphasize that cruise expeditions will especially be impacted, while the large conventional cruise vessels will not be affected to the same degree.

The motion also points to the proposal of new field safety regulations –  where guide certification requirements and restrictions on permanent residents' right to freedom of movement have led to reactions.

The representatives further highlight the major changes that are suggested in the environmental regulations. This includes bans on going ashore in all protected areas for all tourism businesses, with some exceptions, and a ban on motor traffic on sea ice after the 1st of March in Billefjorden, Tempelfjorden, and Van Keulenfjorden for both travelers and permanent residents. In addition, the Environment Agency recommends changes in the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act §30a to prohibit the seeking out of polar bears, as well as a requirement to keep a distance of at least 500 meters from polar bears.

"The polar bear is already very well protected through existing legislation and a further restriction does not seem to be environmentally justified and the proposal will probably also be difficult to comply with a control," they write.

Daglig leder Ronny Brunvoll i Visit Svalbard
The manager of Visit Svalbard, Ronny Brunvoll, believes that the authorities should put a stop to the introduction of new environmental regulations on Svalbard. (Photo: Private)

"Have understood the concerns of local businesses"

"What representative Strifeldt suggests is completely in line with what we also stand for. I find it curious that the government is choosing a "bits and pieces" approach to the management of Svalbard when they now are setting down the long-term course of action for the archipelago for the next 8-10 years. Especially when you know how disputed the Environment Agency's suggestions are," says the Manager of Visit Svalbard, Ronny Brunvoll, to High North News.

He points to how 95 percent of the nearly 100 responses to the hearing were negative and/or had objections. 

"It is, from my perspective, reasonable to put the breaks on and take a holistic look at this."

Brunvoll recently participated in the event "Svalbard-dagen" (the Svalbard Day) in Oslo, which was primarily directed towards public management. He explains that the focus there was more openness, real participation, as well as comprehensive management of Svalbard, where all of the regulations and their consequences are seen and assessed in context.

"We received great understanding for this – now is the time to put action behind understanding," says Brunvoll and adds:

"Strifeldt knows Svalbard well and we are very happy that he has understood the concerns of the local businesses so accurately. It is not the case that Svalbard nature is at the mercy of this postponement and the time it takes to take a holistic look at the proposals in the context of the new report. I firmly believe that the benefits of doing as Strifeldt suggests will benefits the natural environment as well as the Norwegian Svalbard policy, local businesses, and the local residents. 

"Should postpone invasive measures"

"When a new Svalbard White Paper is to be created, the environmental regulations and the field safety regulations should be seen in context in order to have a holistic mindset and a steady course forward," states Storting representative Strifeldt. 

At the same time, the Storting representatives believe that the government must carry out an impact assessment of the suggestions for changes in the environmental regulations, and document the impact the changes will have on the fields of business, settlement, Svalbard exploitation, use of nature, and specific environmental effect/benefits.

"It would be natural if changes to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, which could have major consequences for tourism businesses on Svalbard, for example, are processed in a comprehensive White Paper. Changes to the environmental regulations on Svalbard that may have great consequences for the businesses on the archipelago should not be processed as an individual matter," the motion reads.

Strifeldt says to the newspaper that he agrees that a review of the legislation that was implemented back in 2002 is necessary. "Whether or not such major invasive changes are needed can be discussed if we pause and do a necessary impact assessment of both the proposals and other suggestions," he points out.

Whether or not such major invasive changes are needed can be discussed.
Storting representative Bengt Rune Strifeldt (Progress Party)

Visit Svalbard recently sent its statement on the Environment Agency's recommendation to the Ministry of Climate and Environment. 

"Our opinion is the same as in our hearing response in May 2022; involve affected parties, have wide and real processes for participation, find solutions that protect the environment and simultaneously allow for activity. Business activity is desired and anchored in White Paper 32 (2015-2016), which still applies, as far as I know. If they do that, they will get robust and legitimate regulations. And not at the expense of nature, on the contrary, we believe that there are passable paths in the management without prohibitions and more or less automated rejections of all alternative approaches," concludes Brunvoll.

"Today's environmental regulations are not sufficient"

With rapid climate change and growth in tourism and other traffic, the current environmental regulations are not sufficient to protect vulnerable nature and cultural heritage on Svalbard. Increased traffic has already made clear marks on many places in the archipelago," stated Ellen Hambro, Director of the Norwegian Environment Agency, in a press release in connection with the presentation of recommendations to the Ministry of Climate and Environment.

Preserving Svalbard's distinctive wild nature is one of the overarching goals of the Svalbard policy. A prerequisite for the mission from the ministry is to reduce the impact of traffic on Svalbard, states the report.

The Environment Agency believes that the proposals will not have much effect on permanent residents' movements compared to the current regulations. The proposal will have the most say for sea-based tourist businesses that must adapt to the new regulations.

"The focus on polar bear experiences is increasing and the Governor now considers the need for stricter regulations as absolutely necessary to protect polar bears from disturbances. In 2022, there has been an increase in the number of police reports for traffic violations, illegal motoring on sea ice, and disturbance of polar bears," writes the agency.

This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.