Svalbard Gets Exemptions from New Sanctions against Russia

Her skal det planlagte fiskemottaket i Barentsburg ligge.

The Barentsburg port area, Barentsburg being a Russian settlement at the Grønfjorden in Svalbard. As per February 2022, there are 120 Russians and 220 Ukrainians living in the settlement, according to the Svalbard Governor. Activities are mainly coalmining and also tourism, the latter currently subject to a local boycott, operated by the Russian state-owned coalmining company Trust Arktikugol and its tourism subsidiary Grumant. (Photo: Line Nagell Ylvisåker)

“Norway will permit the Russian community in Svalbard to receive necessary supplies as well as shipping out coal in order to not risk violating its obligations stemming from the Svalbard Treaty”, says University of Tromsø Professor Tore Henriksen.

Norway has now introduced an adapted version of the EU’s fifth sanction package against Russia, following from its war against Ukraine, the Norwegian government announced in a Friday press release.

The EU adopted the sanctions package on 8 April, a key feature of which is to close EU ports for vessels sailing under Russian flag, with exemptions made for medicines, food, energy and humanitarian purposes.

Great Britain and Canada introduced such a ban last March, and the USA announced last week that it will do the same.

We make an exemption for Svalbard as Svalbard holds a special position

Bjørnar Skjæran (Labor), Norwegian Minister of Fisheries and Ocean Policy

In the Norwegian following of the EU’s line of sanctioning, an exemption has been made for Svalbard given the equal treatment principle of the Svalbard Treaty.

Russian fishing vessels are also allowed to continue docking at Norwegian ports. The port ban will also “normally not apply to search and rescue vessels or research vessels”, the press statement reads.

“We close our ports for vessels under Russian flag, however, we keep them open to fishing vessels. It is important for Norway to protect the fisheries cooperation in the Barents Sea for operative bilateral cooperation about search and rescue. We also make an exemption for Svalbard as Svalbard holds a special position”, says Fisheries and Ocean Policy Minister Bjørnar Skjæran.

Several key considerations

Tuesday last week, Norwegian PM Jonas Gahr Støre (Labor) addressed parliament about the government’s work with the issue of Russian vessels’ access to Norwegian ports.

“As previously communicated, we will follow the EU’s decision to close ports for Russian vessels. We take our time going thoroughly through how the form and conduct the port ban in Norway. We have Svalbard, with its conditions and regulations that require its own assessment”, Støre said and continued:

“We must make sure we can maintain existing collaboration with Russia about search and rescue, preparedness, and safety at sea in the vast ocean areas in the North. That will serve everyone who travel along the northern coast best.”

“Being coastal states, Norway and Russia are also obligated to cooperate about the management of joint fish stocks. All these regards must be taken into account.”

Svalbard is special

The Svalbard Treaty is an international agreement from 1920 providing Norway with sovereignty over Svalbard while also ensuring certain rights for all other countries that are signatories to the treaty.

Tore Henriksen, professor ved Det juridiske fakultet på UiT Norges arktiske universitet og ekspert på havrett. (Foto: UiT)

Tore Henriksen, professor ved Det juridiske fakultet på UiT Norges arktiske universitet og ekspert på havrett. (Foto: UiT)

Tore Henriksen, Professor of Law at the Legal Faculty of the University of Tromsø, and expert on ocean law. (Photo: University of Tromsø)

Amongst others, citizens and companies from the 46 signatories, Norway included, have equal right to stay on the archipelago and run business activities there, such as fisheries, trapping, and mining. In these areas, Norway is not allowed to differentiate policies based on nationality.

High North News spoke earlier with Tore Henriksen at the University of Tromsø about the then-announced new Russia-sanctions from Norway, as well as about Svalbard’s special position.

“Norway will permit the Russian community in Svalbard to receive necessary supplies as well as shipping out coal in order to not risk violating its obligations stemming from the Svalbard Treaty”, Henriksen said. He is professor at the Law Faculty and expert in ocean law.

Saying this, he refers to the Russian mining town Barentsburg in Svalbard.

Barentsburg er tufta på kolgruvedrift.

Barentsburg is based on coalmining. Most miners come from the Donbass area in Eastern Ukraine. (Photo: Line Nagell Ylvisåker)

With the aforementioned sanctions package, the EU also introduced a ban on importing Russian coal.

As for goods import in Svalbard, local customs control will be introduced in Longyearbyen in May in order to avoid that Svalbard is used as a loophole for in- and out transport of sanctioned goods to and from Russia. The government’s proposal that the Customs Act shall now also be applicable to Svalbard was adopted by the parliament, Stortinget, in April.

The Svalbard fish protection zone

Fiskevernsonen rundt Svalbard. (Utklipp fra Kartverkets oversikt over Norges maritime grenser).

Fiskevernsonen rundt Svalbard. (Utklipp fra Kartverkets oversikt over Norges maritime grenser).

The fish protection zone around Svalbard. (Excerpt from’s overview over Norway’s maritime boundaries)

Other than mining, there is a.o. Russian fisheries activity in the waters around Svalbard.

However, as there is no general permission to conduct organized fishing with landing and processing in Svalbard, no fish is landed there, neither from Russian vessels nor from those of other countries.

As for fisheries around Svalbard, a (general) Norwegian port ban against Russian vessels could make it difficult to manage potential disagreement in the fish protection zone around the archipelago.

This is pointed out by Andreas Østhagen, Senior Researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI), who previously spoke with High North News about potential sanctions against Russian vessels.

The Norwegian fish protection zone is somewhat contested amongst fishery states that are signatories to the Svalbard Treaty, amongst them Russia and the EU. (Last Thursday, the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries announced that an understanding had been reached with the EU regarding fishing in this zone.) The official Russian view is that the waters surrounding Svalbard are international waters.

In practice, Russia by and large respects Norwegian fisheries regulation and inspection, however, there have been conflict situations in which Russian vessels have resisted the Norwegian Coast Guard exerting authority.

“Conflicted situations may arise, not necessarily because the Russian state wants it to, but rather because fishers and shipowners resist the Norwegian approach in the Svalbard zone. If the Russian state interferes with this, it may escalate into a bigger crisis for Norway given the current situation”, Østhagen said.

Fisheries cooperation hanging by a thin thread?

A relevant question, and one that was also underlying Støre’s aforementioned address to the parliament, has been whether the sanctioning of Russian vessels and in particular fishing vessels will be able to shake the foundations of the crucial Norwegian-Russian fisheries cooperation.

Ever since the 1970’s, Norway and Russia have cooperated about the management of joint fish stocks in the Barents Sea, which is considered the largest cod stock in the world.

Today, as mentioned above, we know that fishing vessels are exempt from the port ban, while it still applies to vessels under Russian flag that weigh more than 500 gross tons sailing commercially in international shipping routes, yachts, and some leisure boats and pleasure crafts. From 7 May, they will not be allowed to dock at Norwegian ports.

Nordøstarktisk torsk (skrei) er verdens største torskebestand. (Foto: Per Harald Olsen/NTNU)

Nordøstarktisk torsk (skrei) er verdens største torskebestand. (Foto: Per Harald Olsen/NTNU)

North-East Arctic Cod (the so-called skrei) is the world’s largest codfish stock. (Photo: Per Harald Olsen, NTNU)

Henriksen had the following comment on the government’s extended deliberation process on the introduction of the port ban:

“Norway had not needed to await the EU’s adoption of the last sanction package to make its own decision regarding the port ban, however, Norwegian authorities are clearly careful about doing anything that can negatively affect the joint Norwegian-Russian fish management.”

Like many others are, the sea law expert at the University of Tromsø is worried about the future of this collaboration.

“We do not know how the fisheries cooperation will fare, also in light of Russia’s being banned from the International Marine Research Council. This international organization plays an important role through providing cod stock quota advice to Norway and Russia. What scientific foundation are they now to base their decision on?”, he asks.

“A dramatic fishery policy decision” Research Professor Geir Hønneland at FNI said to High North News when the exclusion was announced late March.

Potentially fewer challenges

As for the Norwegian following up on the EU’s sanctions line and the fisheries cooperation, Henriksen highlighted that there may nevertheless not be as many difficult issues as one might initially think.

“I understand it so that the EU in its latest sanction package opens op for continued landing of white fish as an exemption from the import ban on Russian seafood”, the professor said and continued:

“This can contribute to solving some of the dilemmas Norwegian authorities are facing, as it allows space for Russian vessels to continue landing their catch in Norwegian ports without Norway’s appearing as a free port.”

This window of opportunity has now been preserved by the Norwegian government through its shaping the latest sanctions package adoption.

The Liberals opposition party, which has previously criticized the government for taking too long to introduce the port ban now argues that the adopted ban has too wide loopholes and that it should also apply to Russian fishing vessels, Norwegian broadcaster NRK reports.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.