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Home* News and Stories → Stric­ter rules in the making

Stric­ter rules in the making

Obser­ving Nor­we­gi­an govern­men­tal acti­vi­ties to tigh­ten rules con­cer­ning traf­fic and tou­rism in Spits­ber­gen has been a con­stant and most­ly rather unp­lea­sant part of run­ning this web­site sin­ce I star­ted it in 2006. Legal pro­po­sals have, wit­hout any doubt, included impro­ve­ments, some of them long due – one may well ask why it was pos­si­ble until recent­ly that pret­ty much anyo­ne could just rent a fire­arm legal­ly in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, almost like a bicy­cle else­whe­re. Other legal impro­ve­ments have, so far, remain­ed a dream for envi­ron­men­ta­lists, for exam­p­le a ban on hea­vy oil in all water­ways of the who­le archi­pe­la­go, or a limit on the num­ber of per­sons on ships allo­wed into the 12 mile zone – an acci­dent of a lar­ge crui­se ship, with pas­sen­ger and crew num­bers orders of magni­tu­de bey­ond any­thing emer­gen­cy ser­vices could hand­le, remain a night­ma­re.

On the other hand, it is hard to belie­ve what aut­ho­ri­ties some­ti­mes come up with.

Curr­ent­ly, it seems to be a bit of both, with a distinct empha­sise on the bizar­re aspect. Again, a tigh­tening of the exis­ting frame­work of regu­la­ti­ons that con­trol traf­fic and tou­rism in Sval­bard is under dis­cus­sion. The Nor­we­gi­an envi­ron­men­ta aut­ho­ri­ty (mil­jø­di­rek­to­ra­tet) has brought a pro­po­sal into a public hea­ring pha­se. The hea­ring will be open until Febru­ary 03, 2022. Until then, ever­y­bo­dy can give his or her opi­ni­on into the pro­cess. Based on expe­ri­ence with recent regu­la­to­ry pro­ces­ses, howe­ver, obser­vers doubt that opi­ni­ons issued by others than the aut­ho­ri­ties invol­ved will serious­ly be taken into con­side­ra­ti­on.

So, what’s going on? Some of the most important chan­ges that are included in the cur­rent pro­po­sal may be sum­ma­ri­sed (and com­men­ted) as fol­lows (not com­pre­hen­si­ve). When “lar­ge pro­tec­ted are­as” are men­tio­ned, then this includes the natio­nal parks Nor­thwest Spits­ber­gen, South Spits­ber­gen, For­lan­det (Prins Karls For­land), Van Mijenfjord and Ind­re Wij­defjord as well as the natu­re reser­ves Nor­the­ast Sval­bard and Sou­the­ast Sval­bard. In other words, most of the archi­pe­la­go except Isfjord, parts of For­lands­und and Kongsfjord.

So, the fol­lo­wing chan­ges are included in the cur­rent pro­po­sal:

  • Ships are not allo­wed to have more than 200 pas­sen­gers on board in the natio­nal parks (this is alre­a­dy the case in the natu­re reser­ves. The pro­po­sal does not include waters out­side the lar­ge pro­tec­ted are­as. In other words: lar­ge crui­se ships may still come into Isfjord with any num­ber of pas­sen­gers and crew on bord).
  • Now, the fol­lo­wing point is, for most, pro­ba­b­ly the most important and dra­stic one: the legal prin­ci­ple of whe­re it is allo­wed to move around in the lar­ge pro­tec­ted are­as is tur­ned around: so far, the situa­ti­on is essen­ti­al­ly that you can move around, also on land, any­whe­re unless it is for­bidden. Now it is pro­po­sed that this should be tur­ned around: it is gene­ral­ly for­bidden to go on land in the lar­ge pro­tec­ted are­as unless it is spe­ci­fi­cal­ly allo­wed, which is only plan­ned for 42 loca­ti­ons – in an area com­pri­sing seve­ral ten thousand squa­re kilo­me­t­res. Most parts of the archi­pe­la­go would thus effec­tively be clo­sed to the public.
    An exam­p­le: accor­ding to the pro­po­sal made by the mil­jø­di­re­to­rat, the­re would only one landing site be available on Prins Karls For­land (Poo­le­pyn­ten). Other than this one loca­ti­on, the who­le island, which is more than 80 km long, would be clo­sed to the public. More than 10 sites around the island – most­ly on the east side – have, howe­ver, been visi­ted by tou­rists more or less regu­lar­ly in recent years.
    This is just an exam­p­le; things would be simi­lar in the other lar­ge pro­tec­ted are­as, which com­pri­se effec­tively most of the archi­pe­la­go. The con­se­quen­ces for ship-based tou­rism as it is hap­pe­ning today (set coro­na asi­de for a moment) would be dra­ma­tic. The desi­re to expe­ri­ence the huge diver­si­ty of the land­scape and the need to have a choice becau­se of other ships ope­ra­ting in the same area is one reason, but ano­ther, even more important one is sim­ply safe­ty: it is dai­ly rou­ti­ne that a landing site has to be chan­ged on short noti­ce becau­se wind wea­ther do not per­mit a a safe ope­ra­ti­on. In such a situa­ti­on, it is com­mon rou­ti­ne to move the landing to ano­ther site with bet­ter con­di­ti­ons to ope­ra­te safe­ly, some­thing that hap­pens fre­quent­ly. The pre­sence of a polar bear in the vici­ni­ty is ano­ther fac­tor that often requi­res the same kind of reac­tion. If it is not pos­si­ble any­mo­re to react in a fle­xi­ble way, pres­su­re will increase to make landings under con­di­ti­ons less than ide­al or poten­ti­al­ly even in dan­ge­rous con­di­ti­ons.
    Out of the 42 landing sites that are included in the pro­po­sal, a num­ber is to be rest­ric­tion to a maxi­mum num­ber of 39 peo­p­le ashore at any time.
  • The ban on moto­ri­sed traf­fic (snow mobi­les) on fjord ice in a num­ber of fjords that has so far been issued every sea­son for some years now is to recei­ve legal sta­tus. This has alre­a­dy hap­pen­ed ear­lier this year regar­ding Van Mijenfjord and Van Keu­len­fjord and the cur­rent pro­po­sal includes Tem­pel­fjord, Bil­lefjord and Dick­son­fjord.
  • Regu­la­ti­ons regar­ding traf­fic in the vici­ni­ty of polar bears are to be tigh­ten­ed con­sidera­ble. So far, it is for­bidden to approach polar bears in a way that may lead to dan­ger to humans or bears. The­re is, as of now, no legal­ly requi­red mini­mum distance, and it is, in rever­se con­clu­si­on, legal­ly pos­si­ble to approach polar bears in a safe man­ner – usual­ly done by boat – as long as this does not lead to any dis­tur­ban­ce. Dis­tur­bing wild­life is gene­ral­ly pro­hi­bi­ted, inclu­ding polar bears as well as any other wild­life. Accor­ding to the cur­rent pro­po­sal, the­re will be a gene­ral mini­mum distance of 500 met­res from polar bears.
  • A maxi­mum speed of 5 knots in the vici­ni­ty of cer­tain bird colo­nies for boats (who would want to argue against that?).
  • Ships and boats have to keep a mini­mum distance of 300 met­res to wal­rus hau­lout sites.
  • The use of dro­nes will lar­ge­ly be for­bidden.

Remar­kab­ly enough, the pro­po­sal does also include some legal faci­li­ta­ti­ons, alt­hough of a rather punc­tu­al natu­re:

  • No spe­ci­fic per­mit is requi­red any­mo­re for visits to Vir­go­ham­na.
  • The “no traf­fic zone” around the remains of the pomor site and wha­ling sta­ti­on in Habe­nicht­buk­ta on Edgeøya is to be abo­lished.
  • The legal requi­re­ment for site-spe­ci­fic gui­de­lines is to be abo­lished (accor­ding to the pro­po­sal, most sites in ques­ti­on would be off limits any­way).

Of the abo­ve-men­tio­ned points, the second one is the one that bears the most radi­cal chan­ge com­pared to the sta­tus quo, limi­ting the traf­fic to a small num­ber of loca­ti­ons in huge are­as that can, until now, be visi­ted rela­tively free­ly. This would have a dra­ma­tic impact on the prac­ti­ce of ship-based tou­rism as it is today. A simi­lar pro­po­sal was alre­a­dy under dis­cus­sion around 2008/09. Back then, the pro­po­sal was final­ly con­side­red unre­asonable and unsub­stan­tia­ted and it was hence lar­ge­ly rejec­ted.

A com­pa­ri­son bet­ween the fol­lo­wing to sketch maps will illus­tra­te the dif­fe­rence bet­ween today’s legal regime and prac­ti­ce (first map) and the cur­rent pro­po­sal (second map).

New rules, Spitsbergen

Landing sites on Nord­aus­t­land and near­by islands that have been visi­ted by tou­rists in recent years (not com­ple­te).

Neue Regeln, Spitzbergen

Landing sites in the same area that would be available accor­ding to the cur­rent pro­po­sal (com­ple­te).

This exam­p­le includes just Nord­aus­t­land and the sur­roun­ding islands. Simi­lar­ly dra­stic illus­tra­ti­ons could be made for most other parts of Sval­bard.

It is, so far, “only” a legal pro­po­sal in a public hea­ring stage that is open until ear­ly Febru­ary 2022. After that, the pro­po­sal will go through the usu­al pro­cess and we will see what comes out of it. Accor­ding to the envi­ron­men­tal aut­ho­ri­ty (mil­jø­di­rek­to­ra­tet), the chan­ges will come into force in 2023.

Also the new Nor­we­gi­an govern­ment has announ­ced to con­ti­nue with the explo­ra­ti­on of new oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea. Also bot­tom traw­ling, an eco­lo­gi­cal­ly devas­ta­ting form of fishery, will remain pos­si­ble even in the natu­re reser­ves.



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last modification: 2021-10-20 · copyright: Rolf Stange