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