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ICE Case Studies
Number 121

The Dispute Over the Barents Sea

-A case study by Randi Laegreid

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

This case study will examine various aspects of the international dispute between Russia and Norway regarding maritime boundaries in the Barents Sea. Whereas the issue of fishing rights is central to the dispute, and has often been portrayed as the most prominent cause of the conflict between the two nations, an underlying reason is also the expectation of substantial petroleum reserves in the disputed region. Limited geological exploration of the area has been conducted, and it appears that there are vast supplies of both gas and oil. Thus, natural resources seem to be at the root of this dispute. It is further interesting to consider this conflict from an environmental perspective; the environmental aspects of the conflict today, and the environmental consequences of a potential resolution. I will also examine the conflicting approaches to the drawing of maritime boundaries in the international legislative regime and how the ambiguity in the legislative language plays out in this dispute.

2. Description

Despite recent diplomatic negotiations, the long-standing dispute between Russia and Norway regarding their maritime boundaries in the Barents Sea has not yet been resolved. In 1920, Norway’s sovereignty over a group of islands called Svalbard was established through the Svalbard Treaty and five years later it officially took over the territory. Once this sovereignty had been established, Norway also claimed a territory of 200 Nautical Miles (NM) as exclusively theirs for fishing. Though accepted by 40 other nations that were signatories to the Svalbard Treaty, this claim was never recognized by Russia, who claims to have fishing rights beyond Svalbard’s territorial limits within the Svalbard Treaty zone –a claim which Norway refutes.

Fish are a natural resource in strong demand and limited supply. Over-fishing in many of the world’s waters have led to a reduction in the natural stocks and raised questions about the potential for future shortages. Thus, the fishing resources available in the Barents Sea are highly desirable to both Norway and Russia. However, though this would be enough to lead to disagreement, petroleum further complicates this picture. Geological surveys have been conducted, indicating vast supplies of petroleum (both gas and oil) in these areas, thereby making the disputed territory all the more pivotal to both parties involved.
The dispute between Russia and Norway regarding fishing rights and territorial claims in the Barents Sea clearly fits into the discourse of international law. The first major contemporary legislation within this field was the UN Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zones which was completed in Geneva in April 1958 and entered into force in September 1964. This convention was in effect for a significant period of time, but was largely superceded by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 which entered into force in 1994. While this is the main modern legislative tool and compass, there are still a number of states that are not a party to the convention.

The main tool recommended for delimitation of maritime boundaries between states in the UNCLOS is the so-called “median line.” Article 15 of Part II: Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone states that: “Where the coasts of two States are opposite or adjacent to each other, neither of the two States is entitled, failing agreement between them to the contrary, to extend its territorial sea beyond the median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial seas of each of the two States is measured. The above provision does not apply, however, where it is necessary by reason of historic title or other special circumstances to delimit the territorial seas of the two States in a way which is at variance therewith.” The text stipulates that the median line should be the guiding principle in dispute resolution, however it also provides for the possibility of “special circumstances,” and this is precisely the problem in the case of the dispute between Russia and Norway.

Norway and Russia have been arguing their maritime boundaries for more than thirty years now, and have been basing their arguments on two different principles; a problem made possible by the ambiguity of the UNCLOS text. Norway argues based on the median line principle, whereas Russia bases their arguments on the continental shelves. Based upon article 15 of the UNCLOS (which is mirrored in article 6 of the 1958 Convention), Norway argues that the median line should be the guiding principle. This principle is customary in these types of negotiations, and has been used by Norway and its other neighbors in their agreements on maritime boundaries –for example, the North Sea is divided between the UK, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and France based on this principle.

The Russian negotiators claim this case has two “special circumstances” which should be taken into account in the discussions with Norway over the Barents Sea (Hagland, 1999: pp.28-29). First of all, in 1926 the Soviet Union decreed a “sector line” which stretches a line from the Soviets then-valid Western border to Finland and along the meridian up to the North Pole. This decree of 1926 was originally meant to clarify the sovereignty over certain islands in the sea within this area, and was not meant nor accepted as a delimitation of maritime boundaries. However, the Russians today still feel that this principle constitutes a historic precedence which should be taken into account. The other factor Russian negotiators have mentioned as a “special circumstance” is the difference between the two nations’ territorial land areas. In response to this claim, Norway argues that the delimitation must be based upon geographic circumstances without taking into account differences in population size, economic factors, or other unrelated issues.

This case clearly illustrates the centrality of politics in these types of discussions. The power balance between these two nations is clearly asymmetric, but international law dictates that this asymmetry should be irrelevant to the discussions. In reality, as A G Elferink outlines in a series of journal articles for The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, Russia has argued a variety of different principles depending on whom they are in negotiations with and what was at stake. For example, they have argued the median line principle in their discussions with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkmenistan over the boundaries in the Caspian Sea.

A further issue to consider in this case-study is the environmental consequences of the dispute. First of all, there have been numerous instances of what Norway claims is illegal fishing by Russian fishermen. These activities are of course not considered illegal by Russian authorities, but are very much so by the Norwegians. Norway has strict rules regulating the fishing industries, and fixed quotas of how many fish of particular types are permitted to be caught. The goal of these policies is to as far as possible maintain a sound ecological balance. Illegal fishing clearly interferes with this attempt and makes the issue of setting quotas that much more difficult. The petroleum that could be extracted is certainly also an environmental issue, and I would want to compare this dispute to a similar dispute which Russia is having with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in the Caspian Sea.

3. Duration

The boundaries have been debated for nearly 40 years.

4. Location

Defining seas with significant precision is a difficult task, except for in the case of virtually enclosed seas like the Red Sea, for example. Nonetheless, the definition widely accepted in the field is: “To the south the Barents Sea is bounded by the mainland coasts of Norway and [Russia], to the east by the large [Russian] archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, and to the north by the archipelagos of Franz Josef Land and Svalbard, belonging to [Russia] and Norway respectively,” (Churchill and Ulfstein, 1992: p.4).

5. Actors

Norway and Russia are the nations directly involved in this dispute.

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

A. General Description:

Currently, the gravest dangers to the Arctic environment are of transboundary origin, and external pollution sources pose a serious threat. The EEA lists the following environmental threats: “Persistent organic pollutants (POP) are transported northward by air, sea and possibly river water, and accumulate to hazardous levels in the food chain. Long-range transported sulphur dioxide (SO2) may cause ‘Arctic haze’. Heavy metal emissions from industry in the region cause serious contamination locally and regionally. Improperly stored and handled radioactive materials are a major threat to the region, but so far contamination levels are very low and European reprocessing plants are the main source of radioactive pollution in the European Arctic,” (EEA: “The State of the Arctic Environment.”) Due to the transnational roots of this problem, an international and cooperative approach is necessary to protect the Arctic environments in the future.

Despite this vulnerability, both the EEA and The Bellona Foundation –a Norwegian based environmentalist organization– describe the European Arctic (including the Barents Sea) as having the largest areas of near-pristine wilderness in Europe. Sondre Grinna, writing for Bellona, states that the Barents Sea is capable of maintaining large fish populations with cod, capelin and herring as key species amongst the approximately 150 species that live in the area. He further writes that the “large occurrence of plankton and plankton-eating fish throughout the year, forms the basis for an abundant and varied animal life further up in the food chain,” (Grinna, 2000). The most numerous animal group higher up the food chain is the seabirds. However, among the mammals, the seals dominate in numbers –with whales and polar bears as the largest mammals in the region.

Though fish stocks have traditionally been abundant, and the Norwegian government enforces strict fishing quotas in an attempt to ensure sufficient stocks for the future, in April of 2002 The United Nations agency CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was considering putting the North-Atlantic cod on their list over endangered species. In response to this move Aasmund Bjordal, director of Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, made the following comments to Aftenposten (the largest Norwegian daily newspaper): “For the Barents Sea cod, which is the most important for our fisheries, it is correct to say that the spawning stock level is under the ideal, and the pressure to fish is too high. The population can, in our opinion, become so reduced that it would create problems for fisheries. But putting the Barents Sea cod on a list of endangered species is going too far,” (Aftenposten: “Cod,” 2002).

In addition to over-fishing, the cod and capelin and other species living in the area face natural threats in their habitat. Slightly over a year after the CITES story, in May 2003, the same newspaper reported that king crab seemed to be reproducing at record rates and were grazing on fish roe they found on the ocean floor (Aftenposten: “King Crab,” 2003). Minister of Fisheries Svein Ludvigsen had allowed commercial culling of the crabs at the rate of 200,000 per year, but fishermen feared that this was far too little. There was particular concern over the fact that the crabs seemed to be eating capelin roe, which happens to be the main food source for the North Atlantic cod.

Finally, there are two countries that are of particular importance when discussing Norway’s international relations in the area of environmental issues in the Barents Sea: Great Britain and Russia. A major case is that of the Sellafield nuclear plant in northwestern England. In 2001, Norwegian researchers claimed to have found radioactive traces from the Sellafield plant that had passed Svalbard (Norwegian arctic island group) and reached the Arctic Ocean (Aftenposten: “Sellafield,” 2001). They stressed that though the radiation levels were 10 times the norm, these findings were not hazardous. However, the findings were causing international concern and potentially damaging the vital Norwegian fishing trade.

Norway has had several environmental concerns with Russia, and is often a major investor in “cleaning things up” in Russian industry. However, in August of 2001, a particularly unpopular issue arose. The Russians were planning to import used nuclear waste in an attempt to attract much-needed foreign income from countries interested in the “disposal of” their nuclear waste (Aftenposten: “Nordic Opposition,” 2001). The transport route for ships carrying this waste would include travel along the Norwegian coast to Murmansk harbor, which was not a popular topic at the Barents region environmental cooperation talks in Kirkenes, Norway in 2001. I have so far been unable to find out what happened in this case, but will continue to research the topic for conclusions.

B. Illicit activities:

There are various types of illicit activities going on in this region affecting the environment, including over-fishing, illegal dumping, and illegal fishing (i.e. fishing types and sizes of fish that were not permitted or in restricted areas). Of particular interest and poignancy is the issue of radioactive waste dumping. One article that really caught my attention was in the International Press Institute’s Global Journalist and entitled “Radioactive Waste Uncovered”. The article author, Russel Working, is an American freelance journalist based in Vladivostok, Russia. He describes the state of journalists’ rights in general and illustrates with the case of the reporter Igor Kravchuk.

Kravchuk was known for his investigative reporting on issues of security risks and environmental dangers in Russia’s nuclear-submarine fleet, aided by his insider connections in the navy. One of his stories uncovered how impoverished sailors were stripping submarines of everything from radio equipment to radioactive isotopes and selling them to organized criminals. One case, in particular, depicted “two sailors prying palladium parts from a mothballed submarine [coming] close to sparking a nuclear accident that would have vented radioactive material over an area where hundreds of thousands of people live,” (Working, 2001). This reporting got him some unwanted attention from the Federal Security Service (FSB; the main domestic successor to the KGB), who bugged his phone and chastised him for reporting on “matters of public record,” (Working, 2001). And when Kravchuk covered the June trial of two sailors accused of stealing valuable parts from a submarine, the FSB insinuated that he might be jailed.

This case dramatically illustrates Working’s argument that “[r]eporting on nuclear waste can be almost as hazardous to journalists as nuclear waste itself. And it is definitely no way to win friends in Putin’s Russia,” (Working, 2001) and shows that Russia has a long way left to go in ensuring civil rights and liberties for its citizens. Further, Kravchuk’s case is a poignant individual tale in the web of environmental issues in Russia and people who are trying to make a change.

7. Type of Habitat

A. Oceanographic description

The Barents Sea is an oceanic region, part of the Arctic Ocean, unique in its biodiversity and resources. The area is quite large, and amounts to 1,300,000 square kilometers, which is equivalent to 501,933 square miles (Based on the formula: 1 sq km = 0.3861 sq mile. Conversion available from: As described in a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the Barents Sea is among the largest shallow continental shelf areas in the world and sea temperatures are far more stable than land temperatures in this area. They go on to state that “Due to influxes of warm air and water from the south, these areas are generally the mildest and most humid parts of the Arctic. These ocean and air currents, along with the Transpolar Current flowing out from the Arctic Basin into the waters of the European Arctic, also make the area a "sink" for long-range contaminants and pollutants,” (EEA, 1999). Underlying this statement is the fact that most of the European Arctic is biologically richer and more productive than other Arctic areas at similar latitudes. Thus we can see that the Barents Sea’s comparatively warm and stable conditions make it both a good basis for varied marine wildlife and simultaneously make it a region vulnerable to environmental hazards.

B. Trade Data

The Barents Sea region is a region abundant in natural resources through its fish stocks and petroleum reserves, though the bountiful reserves of both oil and gas in the disputed areas are not yet being tapped due to the dispute, and therefore holds a lot of economic profit potential and is a natural cause for international conflict. The dispute between Norway and Russia over where to draw the boundaries has not been a bloody dispute, but clearly has strained the relations between these two nations and illustrated that a resolution of this type of conflict where large quanta of natural resources are at stake is not easy to come by. If the dispute were only in regards to the fishing rights, perhaps it would have been solved a long time ago –through for example allowing the party that loses territory a greater fishing quota– but petroleum discoveries certainly complicated the dispute dimensions. On the Russian side, the world’s largest natural gas field was discovered (the Stockmanovskaya field). And while no official exploration has taken place in the disputed areas themselves, Norway has found several sights in Norwegian territory areas of the Barents Sea which they are developing. And preliminary seismic testing has shown that there are several sedimentary structures in the disputed region, assumed to hold large amounts of oil or gas.

Obviously, trade data cannot be provided for the region which is disputed, as neither party is officially “in charge” of that region nor are statistics kept on this. However, what I can look at is the trade data for Norway and Russia on the two commodities in question: petroleum and fish. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Russia produced an estimated 7.286 million bbl/day and consumed an estimated 2.595 million bbl/day. No estimate is provided for the amounts exported annually, but a basic intuitive guess might lead one to think that it would be roughly equal to production minus domestic consumption, which in this case would be 4.691 million bbl/day. The same source sights Russia’s proved oil reserves at 51.22 billion bbl (January 2002 est.) and proved natural gas reserves at 47.86 trillion cu m (January 2002 est.). When it comes to fish exports, according to the International Trade Statistics Russia exported $444,502 worth of fish in 2001. (This figure is based on compiling the data for the following categories: “034 - FISH,LIVE/FRSH/CHLD/FROZ, 035 - FISH,DRIED/SALTED/SMOKED, 036 - CRUSTACEANS MOLLUSCS ETC, 037 - FISH/SHELLFISH,PREP/PRES.”)

Norway is also a major producer and exporter of petroleum on the world market. The CIA World Fact Book estimates that Norway exported 3.466 million bbl/day in 2001, and that the proved oil reserves are equal to 9.859 billion bbl while the proved natural gas reserves are equal to 1.716 trillion cu m in 2002. When it comes to fish exports, Norway is surprisingly the single largest exporter of fish and fish products in Europe with an estimated annual value of three billion seven hundred fifty million dollars (as estimated by the EU: Thus, clearly the Norwegian economy is more reliant upon fish exports than the Russian. The same EU source provided the following figures: “Norwegian fishing industry is represented by a diversified seagoing and coastal fleet of approximately 12,000 vessels, a processing industry consisting of nearly 800 units and a fish farming industry holding over 2,700 licenses. All in all the fishing industry provides direct employment for approximately 37,000 people, and forms a basic network of regional economic activities heavily dependent upon the sustainable and rational management of the available marine resources. Thus, the fishing industry is of vital regional and national importance to Norway.” Total catches vary annually due to fluctuations in the size of the major fish stocks, but on average amount to between two and three million tons per year. Fish exports comprise the second largest export commodity in the Norwegian economy.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

As is the case with so many environmental problems in the world today, the problems of over-fishing and pollution are not limited in geographic location. What originates one place has serious repercussions other places. However, some of the environmental problems of the Barents region can be pinpointed as to origination cite.

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict

This is a legal and political conflict over natural resources in a strategically important region.

10. Level of Conflict

The conflict has been ongoing for over 30 years, but has at no time escalated to a violent conflict. There have been diplomatic talks and negotiations on and off throughout the period of dispute, and there is considerable trust that the issue can be resolved diplomatically.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

This has not been a violent conflict, but rather a diplomatic dispute. Thus, there have been no direct fatalities, neither military nor civilian, tied to this dispute.


IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest

The interests of both parties as they relate to natural resources have already been detailed and are quite straight forward. Clearly, it is a region rich in natural resources, and both parties could potentially gain significant monetary rewards by coming out on top in the negotiations. However, the strategic interest in the region is not limited to monetary gain; it is also a matter of military interest and security.

The two nations involved in this dispute, Norway and Russia, have belonged to opposing military alliances most of the time since 1945. And while relations between the nations are for the most part friendly at this point in time, there have been periods in history with much greater tensions –the Cold War era standing out as the most obvious example. Significantly, “Since the early 1960s [Russia] has built up an enormous naval base … on the Kola Peninsula … The fleet housed there, the Northern Fleet, is the largest of [Russia’s] four naval fleets and contains a majority of [their] submarines (including those carrying ballistic missiles) and a large proportion of its most powerful surface warships,” (Churchill and Ulfstein, 1992: pp.13-14). This fleet is strategically important not only because of its size, but specifically because of its location: “the Northern Fleet enjoys both a base which is ice-free all the year round and fairly unconstricted access to the world’s oceans through the 350-mile-wide Svalbard Passage between North Norway and Svalbard, with the added advantage that the land on the northern side of this Passage, Svalbard, even though belonging to a member of NATO, is, as a result of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, demilitarized,” (Churchill and Ulfstein, 1992: p.14).

14. Outcome of Dispute:

Despite several attempts at bringing about a solution through dialog and negotiations, the outcome of this dispute has yet to be determined. An interesting development occurred in 1988, when Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Rysjkov visited Norway to discuss the boundary dispute with the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The two came to an agreement on a compromise whereby a line would be drawn somewhere in between the sector line and the median line. However, these negotiations reached a halt in 1992, and between ’92 and ’95 there was practically no contact between the two nations. Negotiations are today back in action, however, an agreement has yet to be reached.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

Canada fishing case
Cod War
Ogoini Oil

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Barents Information Service (BIS). <>

Barents Secretariat: <>

Churchill, Robin and Geir Ulfstein. Marine management in disputed areas : the case of the Barents Sea. New York, NY: Routledge (1992).

CIA –The World Factbook 2003:
“Svalbard:” <>;
“Russia:” <>;
“Norway:” <>.

Elferink, A G. “The Law and Politics of the Maritime Boundary delimitation of the Russian Federation, Part 1,” The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, no.4/1996.

Elferink, A G. “The Law and Politics of the Maritime Boundary delimitation of the Russian Federation, Part 2”, The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, no.1/1997.

The European Environment Agency. “The State of the Arctic Environment.” In Environmental Monograph no.3, July 21, 1999. Available from: <>

The Governor of Svalbard: “Laws and Regulations.” <>

Grinna, Sondre. “The Barents Sea –a rich and vulnerable ocean,” August 22, 2000. Available at: <>

Hoenneland, Geir. Coercive and discursive compliance mechanisms in the management of natural resources: a case study from the Barents Sea fisheries. Boston, Mass.: Kluwer Academic (2000).

Naval War College (US). Jurisdiction over polar areas. Newport, RI: Naval War College (1937).

Oran R. Young (Ed.). Effectiveness of international environmental regimes: causal connections and behavioral mechanisms. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press (1999).

Schram Stokke, Olav and Ola Tunander: Eds. The Barents Region. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications (1994).

Working, Russel. “Radioactive Waste Uncovered.” In IPI Global Journalist, no. 3, 2001. Available at: <>

[November 2003]