Svalbard’s Snow Crabs: a Pincered Proxy for Arctic Oil

There were the cod wars and then the turbot wars—are the crab wars now upon us?

Published April 12, 2017

In the Barents Sea, the snow crab is a relatively new arrival. First recorded in 1996, the invasive species has since spawned a valuable fishery—one that could soon eclipse Norway’s famous cod fishery. The Barents Sea snow crab has also sparked an intense bout of legal bickering, with the European Union and countries from Norway to the United States to Russia fighting over access to the crabs.

But this fight is about much more than the crabs. In fact, the real dispute may be about a different commodity: oil.


The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard—the northernmost permanently populated place on Earth—was discovered by Dutch explorers at the end of the 16th century. Whales and walrus were plentiful, and unrestricted hunting soon began. After the inevitable exhaustion of those stocks, international interest in Svalbard waned until the late 19th century, when the discovery of rich coal seams ignited interest in mining the islands and conflicts over its legal status.

In 1920, a treaty signed in Paris between Norway, the United States, Great Britain, India, France, Italy, Denmark, and a number of other countries gave Norway “full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. However, one of the terms of the treaty was that all signatory nations would be entitled to enjoy equally” the rights to the resources in Svalbard and its territorial waters.

But the treaty does not detail who owns the rights to the seabed—including access to oil, gas, minerals, and, yes, ocean floor creatures such as the snow crab. Norway argues that it alone owns these rights. Most other countries disagree, claiming that all signatories hold the right to enjoy them equally, as with terrestrial and nearshore resources.

For years, this was a legal debate relegated to trading barbs through crabby notes verbales and ministerial sound bites. But all that changed on January 16, when the crew of the Latvian fishing vessel Senator was arrested by the Norwegian coast guard for illegally fishing snow crabs in the disputed waters off Svalbard.


A month prior to the incident—which saw the vessel and its crew of 30 instructed by the Norwegian coast guard to set course to Kirkenes, mainland Norway—the EU had authorized 16 vessels to fish snow crabs on the disputed seabed around Svalbard. One of these licenses went to the Senator. It was a license the Norwegians are clearly unwilling to recognize.

Harald Sakarias Brøvig Hansen, a fisheries researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, says the ownership of Svalbard continental shelf resources is such a sensitive issue that the Norwegian government had been “sitting quiet, and hoping that nothing would really happen.” With the Senator incident, that is no longer possible. “This won’t pass by itself,” Hansen says.


How this incident will eventually be resolved is anyone’s guess.

Iván López, the chairman of the European Union’s Long Distance Advisory Council, an industry- and NGO-representative body that advises the EU on long-distance fishing, says the Senator episode is a turning point.

Both the EU and Norway “will think it is a [sign of] aggression, and will have to react,” says López.

As to whether the potential of oil, gas, and mineral resources in the area is underwriting the whole dispute, both López and Hansen have no doubt. “It is completely to do with that,” López says. “Yes, oil and gas is also an issue here,” Hansen adds.

Rachel Tiller, a research scientist at SINTEF Ocean, a Norwegian think tank, specializes in studying potential conflict scenarios in Svalbard. She says the parties involved will likely avoid the courts, as it would be both too expensive and too risky: “One side will definitely end up losing,” she says.

Instead, Tiller says negotiations will be the course of action: it has been reported that Norway has offered the EU access to Svalbard snow crabs in exchange for receiving increased access to fish quotas in EU member state waters. If the EU—yet to respond to any such offer—is to hold true to its position, it will say that Norway does not have the right to use snow crabs as bargaining chips.

As for the Senator, the crew was released and, over two months after its arrest, the vessel was at last permitted to set sail again from Kirkenes. The shipowner was fined more than US $150,000. A meager amount in the context of the crab wars? Only time will tell.