Crab Fights: Mediating The Future Of Svalbard’s Resources

Not many people know that since 2015, the European Union and Norway have been in a dead-lock over crabs. The Snow Crab Conflict has far-reaching implications for Norway’s vast seafood and energy wealth, and the stalemate is ripe for mediation.

The fight for the snow crab

The snow crab wandered into Norwegian waters from Russia around 2011, and at first both Norwegian and EU vessels were catching the shellfish. In 2015, when snow crab fishing had become a billion-dollar industry, Norway decided that only its fishermen had exclusive rights to fish for them under the Svalbard Treaty of 1920.

The treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago, but provided the 46 signatories equal rights to engage in commercial activities such as fishing. Additionally, as a European Economic Area member, Norway has access to EU markets at the price of giving the EU access to Norwegian resources. Norway established a Fisheries Protection Zone around the islands, arguing that Svalbard’s 200 nautical-mile-zone and continental shelf – areas unmentioned in the treaty – are a part of the Norwegian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a decision the EU disagrees with. The snow crab is a species that lives on the continental shelf.

Informal negotiations continued between the two parties until 2017, when the EU issued twenty licenses to fish for snow crab, upholding their position that the Svalbard Treaty’s principles of “equal access to economic activity on the archipelago” also applied to the maritime zone and the continental shelf. Norway responded to this action by arresting a Latvian snow crab fishing vessel, threatening the same for future offenders, and stating that “Norway will not give away one single crab”.

Therefore, when the EU reissued twenty licenses for 2018, Norwegian officials deemed this as the EU aborting the negotiations. The issue has been deadlocked since, though both parties have publicly expressed willingness to continue the talks.

The hidden conflict: why crabs matter

The Snow Crab Conflict is about more than fishing rights. The U.S. Government estimates that the Arctic holds 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits, and “as a sedentary resource harvested on the continental shelf, it’s possible that the way Norway treats this [snow crab] issue could set a precedent if they find oil, gas, minerals and genetic resources on the continental shelf. If Norway opens it up for extraction, that would imply that all signatory states would need to be treated like Norwegian citizens,” says Harald Sakarias Brøvig Hansen of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Neither the EU or Norway acknowledges future potential resources to be a p