Norway court rules in Oslo's favour in snow crab case with implication for oil

Norway court rules in Oslo's favour in snow crab case with implication for oil
FILE PHOTO: A fisherman holds a snow crab in Kjoellefjord, Norway, November 1, 2017. NTB Scanpix/Terje Bendiksby via REUTERS/File Photo -
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By Alister Doyle and Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (Reuters) - Ships from European Union countries need permission from Oslo to catch snow crabs off Arctic islands north of Norway, the Norwegian Supreme Court said on Thursday, in a ruling that may make it harder for EU nations to explore for oil in the region.

The court was responding to an appeal by a Latvian fishing firm against fines imposed last year for catching snow crab around the remote Svalbard Islands.

"The appeal is rejected," Chief Justice Toril Marie Oie told the court on Thursday.

At issue was whether the snow crab - whose meat is a delicacy for gourmets from Canada to Japan - was a sedentary species living on the seabed or moves around like fish, and who gets to control the stocks.

The court agreed with non-EU member Norway's argument that snow crabs are sedentary, like corals or oysters, and that as such under the U.N. Law of the Sea they are a resource belonging to the continental shelf of Norway.

Had Norway lost the case, the EU could have staked a claim over the snow crab and it could have been harder for Oslo to secure its claim over potential oil and gas resources.

"For the Norwegian coastguard this is a big relief - they can arrest any ships fishing illegally in the Svalbard area," chief public prosecutor Lars Fause told Reuters, welcoming the verdict.

A lower Norwegian court in 2018 had upheld Norway's view that only Oslo has the authority to issue snow crab licences.

But the Latvian firm, SIA North Star, argued that the crabs are not sedentary because they scurry around and so should be regulated under regional fisheries accords signed by parties including the European Union and Russia.

It argued that it had a valid EU permit.

SIA North Star also argued that Norway is obliged under an international 1920 treaty to allow other nations access to the waters around Svalbard.

That treaty grants sovereignty to Norway but gives other signatories rights to engage in commercial activities on and around Svalbard. Russia, for instance, runs a coal mine on Svalbard.

But Oslo says rights to exploit resources around Svalbard extend only to a narrow band of just 12 nautical miles offshore.

The court also ruled that snow crab catches by the Latvian firm were illegal under Norwegian law, irrespective of the Svalbard Treaty.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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