The economic future of Arctic marine resources is poised between opportunities and uncertainties that hinge on a number of different factors, ranging from decisions on exploitation of non-renewable resources (e.g. oil) and management of renewable resources (e.g. fisheries) to other anthropogenic activities (e.g shipping).

MERE blog has hosted a number of articles that tackle interplays of ecology and economic behavior in the Arctic such as EU’s policy and geopolitical concerns, challenges related to shipping, management of fish stocks and invasive species as well as tourism related challenges. The Arctic has garnered considerable attention recently for reasons related to climate change, property rights as well as for the diplomatic relationships among Arctic players.

Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, wrote an article about 3 weeks ago suggesting that the Arctic Council deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution in international cooperation, establishing Arctic values and promoting common interests over the last 20 years. One of the driving forces for this view has been the recent invitation of Norwegian Foreign Minister from the Russian Foreign Minister to attend a conference on Arctic cooperation, in Arkhangelsk in March — his first visit to Russia since the country’s annexation of Crimea.

Although I can hardly quarrel with the general proposition of the Arctic Council’s contribution to forging common approaches to shared challenges and promoting dialogue, the recent press release of the Russian embassy in Oslo does not bode well for bilateral cooperation and interoperability. Neither does adding to the sanction list the Barents Observer editor last week, along with two Norwegian members of the parliament  in late January. The relationships between the two countries have been characterized as unsatisfactory on the grounds of lack of cooperation on issues other than those of Norwegian interest. Seafoodnews reports the potential for a ‘’freeze’’ in political contracts between the two countries and highlights the ramifications for fishing in the area. In this context, the fact that Norway supports EU sanctions against Russia over its Ukraine policy, despite the significant export losses, becomes worthy of consideration. Meanwhile Moscow’s stance on Norway’s Svalbard policy is viewed as ‘’discriminatory’’ and violating the Svalbard Treaty.

An issue of loose cooperation between the two countries that has received scant recognition in the media is the management of the invasive Snow Crab (Chionoecetes opilio), which has started being commercially exploited only over the last 5 years. The species distribution covers mostly the international loophole (high seas) as well as the Fisheries Protection Zone around Svalbard. The two countries have agreed to manage the lucrative crab stock as a ‘’sedentary species’’ which implies according to UNCLOS regulations that it adheres to the continental shelf and not the countries’ EEZs.  With 85% of the loophole lying on the Russian continental shelf, legitimate concerns have been expressed for Russia potentially excluding from the crab fishery vessels from other countries, including Norway. The characterization of the species as ‘’sedentary’’ has a series of other geopolitical dimensions that relate to resources lying on the continental shelf other than the crab, such as oil and gas.

Meanwhile the Norwegian Coast Guard recently arrested a Latvian Snow Crab vessel fishing in the Fisheries Protection Zone around Svalbard, which has created heated debate since EU authorities had granted 16 vessels permission for Snow Crab fishing in the Svalbard waters. Despite Norway’s interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty, according to which it can enjoy full sovereignty over the continental shelf around the archipelago, the international community opposes this view arguing in favor of equal rights of all signatory countries of the Treaty for economic activity in waters and on the shelf, with other countries including Russia, challenging Norway on this view. Experts describe this evolving conflict over the crab as a ‘test on whether Norway can be subject to pressure with regard to the shelf around Svalbard’.

While property rights in the Snow Crab distribution area are not clearly defined with the existing treaties being susceptible to various interpretations and questions about who owns the resources continuing to be in the spotlight, nuisance issues from the invasion have received little attention. Our knowledge on the ecosystem impacts of the invasive crab is very limited. The lack of a robust scientific baseline may potentially imperil living marine resources of the Arctic indispensable to ecosystem structuring and functioning.

Institutional structures such as the Arctic Council can help resolve such pending disagreements, enhance research cooperation that will help improve our understanding of the species’ interaction with the new environment, identify potential economic and social costs as well as optimize the management of the fishery. An optimal management requires concerted efforts on behalf of not only the two major players, Russia and Norway but also of the international community since the natural resources at stake from the invasion are a public good. Commercial harvesting acts as a control frontier thwarting the invasion’s spread, but as long as tensions in the area remain and issues of ownership of the commercial stock are prioritized higher than ecosystem impact studies, the net effects of harvesting on social welfare will remain uncertain.

Image credit: The crab trawler “Senator” docked in Kirkenes, Norway. Photo: Atle Staalesen