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Monthly Archives: October 2021 − News

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.

Intro­du­ced mice spread into the wild

The­re are, by default, no rodends in Spits­ber­gen. But things chan­ged when the sett­le­ments were estab­lis­hed in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. A vole ori­gi­nal­ly from eas­tern Euro­pe (micro­tus levis) came up most likely with ani­mal feed. The vole is well estab­lis­hed in the vicini­ty of Grum­ant­by­en alt­hough the pla­ces was aban­do­ned in 1962.

Von Natur aus gibt es in Spitz­ber­gen kei­ne Nage­tie­re. Die Ost­eu­ro­päi­sche Feld­maus (Micro­tus levis) ist im 20. Jahr­hun­dert mit dem Men­schen ein­ge­reist, wahr­schein­lich mit Tier­fut­ter. Gehal­ten hat sich sich in einem Gebiet mit ver­gleichs­wei­se üppi­ger Vege­ta­ti­on, näm­lich unter den Vogel­fel­sen öst­lich der 1962 auf­ge­ge­be­nen rus­si­schen Sied­lung Grum­ant­by­en, zwi­schen Lon­gye­ar­by­en und Bar­ents­burg. Traces of various sorts are fre­quent­ly found in lar­ge area stret­ching from Bar­ents­burg in the west to Sas­sen­fjord in the east. Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te bio­lo­gists moni­tor the popu­la­ti­on with came­ra traps and real traps which are laid out by peop­le in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Introduced mice, Spitsbergen

Vole (micro­tus levis) in a trap inLon­gye­ar­by­en.
Pho­to © Max Schwei­ger.

The result: the voles seem to have estab­lis­hed a sta­ble popu­la­ti­on not only in Bar­ents­burg and Grum­ant­by­en, but also in the area of Dia­ba­sod­den and Hat­ten, two adja­cent cliffs with sea­b­irds colo­nies in Sas­sen­fjord. This indi­ca­tes that the rodents can sur­vi­ve on their own in the wil­der­ness in Spits­ber­gen. This may have to do with a war­ming cli­ma­te, espe­cial­ly in the win­ter.

Experts do not con­si­der this deve­lo­p­ment a thre­at for the regio­nal eco­sys­tem and bio­di­ver­si­ty, and the Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ties have so far deci­ded against an attempt to erra­di­ca­te the intro­du­ced voles in Spits­ber­gen. Other coun­tries, name­ly New Zea­land and Aus­tra­lia, are taking a much dif­fe­rent approach on their sub­ant­arc­tic islands, whe­re mice, rats and other intro­du­ced spe­ci­es have been erra­di­ca­ted with gre­at effort, as has been on qui­te recent­ly in South Geor­gia.

First Covid-19 case in Spits­ber­gen

On Wed­nes­day (06 Octo­ber), Spits­ber­gen got the first con­fir­med case of a Covid-19 infec­tion. The pati­ent was not a local or a tou­rist, but a crew mem­ber of a Rus­si­an fishing ship who got evacua­ted for medi­cal rea­sons near Bjørnøya, as NRK wro­te. He was flown to Lon­gye­ar­by­en and later to the uni­ver­si­ty hos­pi­tal in Trom­sø. The­re is only one inten­si­ve care bed with arti­fi­cial respi­ra­to­ry equip­ment in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

The­re is no sus­pi­ci­on of fur­ther infec­tions, for examp­le amongst the per­so­nell of the heli­co­p­ter or in the hos­pi­tal in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The vac­ci­na­ti­on rate in Longyearbyen’s adult popu­la­ti­on is bey­ond 90 %, and local­ly, the public opi­ni­on about pos­si­ble infec­tions is gene­ral­ly rela­xed.

Corona, Spitzbergen

Coro­na viru­ses on high seas: a crew mem­ber of a Rus­si­an fishing ves­sel was tes­ted posi­ti­ve – the first posi­ti­ve coro­na test in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Until now, the­re had not been any offi­cial­ly con­fir­med coro­na infec­tions in Spits­ber­gen bey­ond tho­se on board the Hur­tig­ru­ten ship Roald Amund­sen in 2020, but the Roald Amund­sen had not been to any of the sett­le­ments. The remar­kab­ly long peri­od without any coro­na infec­tions may, howe­ver, also have to do with the rather inte­res­ting local tes­ting stra­te­gy, which is descri­bed as fol­lows by some who wan­ted to get them­sel­ves or their child­ren tes­ted becau­se they had sym­ptoms which they con­si­de­red rele­vant: “You have sym­ptoms? Stay at home!” And later: “You don’t have sym­ptoms? Then you don’t need a test.” This is also a way to keep a place coro­na-free 🙂 at least on paper.

In late Sep­tem­ber, Nor­way has lifted most coro­na restric­tions, inclu­ding tra­vel restric­tions for Euro­pean coun­tries and cer­tain tra­vel­lers from other coun­tries, accord­ing to the Nor­we­gi­an government.

Non-Nor­we­gi­an locals may lose the right to vote

August and Sep­tem­ber have final­ly brought some soul food to the tra­vel blog, which I hope you have enjoy­ed. Now it is time to catch up with some news. Not all of them are good ones, unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly.

For­eign resi­dents of Lon­gye­ar­by­en may lose voting rights

Ear­lier this year, the Nor­we­gi­an government in Oslo has made a pro­po­sal that would lead to the with­dra­wal of voting rights on a com­mu­ni­ty level from non-Nor­we­gi­an locals in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The mat­ter is com­plex; it is based on the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty which puts the Spits­ber­gen islands under Nor­we­gi­an sov­er­eig­n­ty. Based on that, a Nor­we­gi­an law from 1925 deter­mi­ned that “Sval­bard is part of the King­dom of Nor­way”. But depen­ding on the occa­si­on, Spits­ber­gen is some­ti­mes trea­ted as part of Nor­way and some­ti­mes as a for­eign ter­ri­to­ry by Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ties.

Non-Nor­we­gi­an citi­zens who live in Nor­way usual­ly get the right to vote and to be elec­ted on a com­mu­ni­ty level after 3 years of resi­dence. This is also valid for Lon­gye­ar­by­en sin­ce the­re is an elec­ted com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil the­re (Lokals­ty­re), which was estab­lis­hed in 2002.

Now, ear­lier this year the Nor­we­gi­an government made a pro­po­sal that ties the right to vote (and to be elec­ted) to a resi­dence peri­od of at least 3 years in a com­mu­ni­ty on the Nor­we­gi­an main­land. Resi­dence in Lon­gye­ar­by­en would not count any­mo­re, accord­ing to this pro­po­sal.

It will not sur­pri­se that this pro­po­sal was most­ly not met with sym­pa­thy in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, espe­cial­ly amongst tho­se direct­ly con­cer­ned. With­drawing voting rights from a signi­fi­cant part of the local popu­la­ti­on does not fit well into a Euro­pean demo­cra­tic con­text.

The chan­ge of government that fol­lo­wed to the par­lia­men­ta­ry elec­tions in Nor­way in Sep­tem­ber does, so far, not seem to have any con­se­quen­ces for the pro­po­sal, which was dis­cus­sed in Sep­tem­ber in Lon­gye­ar­by­en by local poli­ti­ci­ans during a coun­cil mee­ting.

Longyearbyen voting right

Lon­gye­ar­by­en has an inter­na­tio­nal popu­la­ti­on with Nor­we­gi­ans being the lar­gest group. The local coun­cil is domi­na­ted by Nor­we­gi­an dele­ga­tes.

Dele­ga­te of cent­re and right-wing par­ties sto­ke fears

It is remar­kab­le how a dele­ga­te of the right-wing “Frems­kritts­par­ti” (“Pro­gress par­ty”) com­men­ted the mat­ter, as quo­ted by Sval­bard­pos­ten (this author’s trans­la­ti­on): “… peop­le who have not been to Nor­way, who do not have rela­ti­ves in Nor­way, who do not have any con­nec­tion to Nor­way, who do not have any par­ti­cu­lar inte­rest in Nor­way, may come to Sval­bard, vote and get elec­ted them­sel­ves. For many it is logi­cal that this should not be so. This is a shame for the good citi­zens that we have here, most of whom are rea­son­ab­le peop­le, but it is a ques­ti­on of secu­ri­ty: we can just not take the risk.”

It is one of many remar­kab­le aspects of this com­ment that the spea­ker implies that Sval­bard is not part of Nor­way. Other­wi­se, resi­dence in Lon­gye­ar­by­en would natu­ral­ly imply a con­nec­tion to Nor­way and an inte­rest in the coun­try.

A dele­ga­te of the par­ty “Høy­re” (“Right”) made a simi­lar state­ment: “We risk that so many for­eig­ners come that the­re may not be a sin­gle Nor­we­gi­an in the coun­cil.”

This fear is by no means reflec­ted by rea­li­ty, neit­her in the local popu­la­ti­on nor in the com­po­si­ti­on of the coun­cil – even less by the lat­ter, actual­ly, which is stron­gly domi­na­ted by Nor­we­gi­an dele­ga­tes.

Social demo­crats and left dele­ga­tes speak out in a dif­fe­ren­tia­ted way or cri­ti­cal­ly

Mayor Arild Olsen from the social demo­cra­tic Arbei­der­par­ti spo­ke out very cri­ti­cal­ly about the popo­sal, using both prac­ti­cal argu­ments and con­si­de­ra­ti­ons of demo­cra­tic theo­ry. Dele­ga­tes of the par­ty “Venst­re” (“Left”) made dif­fe­ren­tia­ted comments.

As a result, the coun­cil was not able to come up with a cohe­si­ve state­ment and the issue will be taken up again later. The dead­line for the hea­ring is 25 Octo­ber.


News-Listing live generated at 2021/December/05 at 07:03:50 Uhr (GMT+1)