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.