Victory for the Norwegian State in the Case of Snow Crab Fishing off Svalbard

The Supreme Court of Norway was unanimous in its judgment regarding the dispute over snow crab fishing off Svalbard. (Photo: the Norwegian Armed Forces)

Today, the Supreme Court of Norway delivered a historic judgment in the case of snow crab fishing and the geographical scope of the Svalbard Treaty. The Supreme Court has now concluded that the treaty does not give a Latvian shipping company the right to catch snow crab on the continental shelf off Svalbard.

The Supreme Court in plenary has processed the issue of whether the Latvian shipping company SIA North STAR Ltd. has the right to catch snow crab on the continental shelf off Svalbard.

On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the Svalbard Treaty does not give the Latvian shipping company this right.

As High North News has previously reported, the basis of the matter is the geographical scope of the Svalbard Treaty – and therefore a core issue for Norway: How far from Svalbard's coastline should the treaty apply?

The answer has great significance for Norway. If the judgment had gone in the shipping company's favor, Norway might have had to share the resources located on Svalbard's continental shelf, writes Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

"And that would not just apply to snow crab. That would also apply to oil, gas, minerals, and fishery. The consequence of a judgment in which the Svalbard Treaty is applied on the continental shelf would have potentially major consequences for Norway," Øystein Jensen, an expert on maritime law and law professor at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, previously stated to NRK.

Disagreements regarding the Svalbard Treaty

In 2019, the Latvian shipping company SIA North STAR Ltd.'s application for dispensation to catch snow crab on the Norwegian continental shelf was rejected. The rejection was first given by the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries and then by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries. In practice, the Norwegian regulation entails that only Norwegian vessels are allowed to catch snow crab on the continental shelf, states the Supreme Court.

The case, which began in January, concerned the validity of the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries' rejection. The central issue was whether the decision and regulations on the ban on catching snow crabs were in conflict with the Svalbard Treaty.

The Svalbard Treaty from 1920 provides Norway with full sovereignty over Svalbard. At the same time, the treaty contains the principle of equal treatment of citizens from the treaty countries on the archipelago and its territorial waters 12 nautical miles from land.

Fiskevernsonen rundt Svalbard. (Utklipp fra Kartverkets oversikt over Norges maritime grenser).
The fishing protection zone around Svalbard. (Excerpt from the Norwegian Mappin Authority overview of Norway's maritime borders)

Norwegian authorities still believe the equal treatment principle of the Svalbard Treaty to only apply to the land area and the territorial waters twelve nautical miles from land. In the waters beyond, the law of the sea applies. It gives Norway sovereign rights to the resources that may be in the sea and on the Svalbard shelf: minerals, oil, fish, and crab, noted by Svalbardposten.

Specifically, the Latvian shipping company maintains that the Svalbard Treaty's Article 2 and 3 also applies to the continental shelf off Svalbard and that the decision and the Norwegian regulation is therefore in conflict with the equal treatment principle of the Svalbard Treaty, writes the Supreme Court on their website.

After a collective and unified interpretation of the treaty text, interpreted in accordance with the ordinary meaning of the words in the context in which they are included, and in light of the treaty's object and purpose, the Supreme Court concludes that the equality rule of Article 2 applies to Svalbard's internal waters and maritime territory – which stretches 12 nautical miles from the baselines – but not on the continental shelf off Svalbard. Nor does the equality rule of Article 3 applies to the continental shelf off Svalbard, the Supreme Court states Monday. 

Both the District Court and the Court of Appeal have previously concluded that the Svalbard Treaty's Articles 2 and 3 do not apply on the continental shelf.

Norway and the EU

Norway and the EU have long disagreed since the union allocated quotas for the fishing of snow crabs in the protection zone around Svalbard. The EU believes that European vessels have the same right to catch snow crabs as Norwegian vessels

According to sea law, other countries cannot give their vessels license for snow crab fishing on the Norwegian continental shelf without Norway's consent. In other words, EU vessels may only catch snow crab on the Norwegian shelf if they have been given quotas for this through the bilateral fishery agreements between Norway and the EU.

The Latvian ship "Senator", owned by SIA North STAR Ltd, was arrested for illegal snow crab fishing on the continental shelf in the Loop Hole in the Barents Sea. The cred indicated that they had been given permission to fish in the area by the EU.

The matter ended with a Supreme Court in 2019, in which it was concluded that Norway has every right to punish EU vessels fishing snow crab in the protection zone on Svalbard. The matter taking place this week is a civil lawsuit from the Latvian snow crab fishers.

The Svalbard Treaty

The Svalbard Treaty, also known as the Paris Treaty, was signed on the 9th of February in 1920 in Paris by several countries on the matter of the Svalbard archipelago. 

The treaty was drawn up in connection with the peace conferences which followed World War I. 

It was not until 1925 that the treaty's provisions of Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago were added to Norwegian law through the Svalbard Act, which regulates Norway's exercise of sovereignty and authority on Svalbard.

The treaty establishes "Norway's complete and unrestricted sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago".

The treaty gives Norway sovereignty over Svalbard; Spitsbergen and the surrounding islands Bjørnøya and Hopen.

The treaty countries nevertheless have "equal rights to fish and harvesting" in these areas and their territorial waters.

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