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Nordic islands face pressure to end decades-old fishing deal with Russia

Fishing is a key economic driver for the Faroe Islands, and since 1977 the sector has been boosted by a comprehensive bilateral trade deal with Russia. Now locals are having heated arguments on whether to end or renew it after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

TORSHAVN, Faroe Islands (CN) — "There has to be consequences when a country attacks another country."

So said the Faroese Social Democratic opposition party Javnaðarflokkurin in a statement to Courthouse News amid heated political debates on the Faroe Islands' 45-year-old trade deal with Russia on mutual fishing quotas in the Nordic seas.

”We are against the current fishing agreement for moral reasons and can no longer defend the people we cooperate with," the party said, adding, "Yet of course it is important to find a solution to the many people who would lose their jobs."

The agreement allows Russian vessels to capture 100,000 tons of herring, mackerel and blue whiting close to Faroese shores in the Norwegian Sea annually, while Faroese fishermen get access to 25,000 tons of cod further north in the Barents Sea. 

Each year, the countries' civil offices renew the deal more or less automatically. However, the war in Ukraine and massive trade boycotts again Russia from other European countries have led several Faroese politicians to call for stopping the renewal of the fishing deal in 2023.

Hans Ellefsen, associate professor of resource economics at the University of the Faroe Islands, said in an interview the issue will likely be a hot potato in national elections next month.

“Whereas the opposition parties are directing heavy critique towards the current fishing agreement, our governing party has yet to take a stance," he said. "They are probably scared of losing votes by making an unpopular call. With election campaigns starting now, I believe whether the Faroe Islands shall continue to collaborate with Russia will be very high on the agenda."

Ellefsen noted that 15 to 20% of the Faroe Islands´ annual gross domestic product comes from the fishing industry, which employs about the same share of the population. In addition, fish is more or less the only local export product.

The Faroe Islands, an archipelago of 18 islands, are geographically isolated north in the Atlantic Ocean near Scotland, Norway and Iceland. They are formally a self-governing part of the kingdom of Denmark, which also includes Greenland.

The Faroese people have a strong and close sense of community and their culture is shaped by being close to the rough sea. The landscape is bare, and logistics and infrastructure make it challenging to export goods and services.

Ellefsen called the prospect of potentially cutting the trade agreement with Russia a blow to the local fishing sector but not a detrimental one.

”The fish caught in Russian waters make up 10% of our entire industry," he said. "But in turn, if we were to stop that, we get a bigger quota in our waters instead of giving it away. The main issue now is for the companies, who have invested millions in new vessels to fare the Barents Sea. How are they going to handle that investment, are they going to sell the vessels or maybe fish somewhere else?"

At the Faroe Agency, a company handling logistics for sea vessels in the area, owner Karl-Erik Reynheim believes that trade with Russia should continue. He underlined the importance of the original agreement in an interview.  

“We initiated the deal with the former Soviet Union in 1977. The Russians were very interested in fishing for blue whiting because of its high protein content. For our part, it was a big advantage to get access to cod, as it is in high demand amongst European consumers,” Reynheim said.

“To this day, the deal is the most stable bilateral fishing agreement that the Faroe Islands have had, and it secures vital earnings," he added.

The Danish Broadcasting Corporation, also known as DR, recently calculated that the value of the fish caught by Faroese fishermen – around $45.5 million – is almost equivalent to the value of the fish caught by Russian fishermen in Faroese waters – $42.5 million – when transportation costs are factored in for the Faroese fishermen.

However, Reynheim argued the numbers look very different in real life.  

“According to 2021 prices, the 20,000-ton cod we catch is worth 495 million DKK [$66 million]. It has a significantly higher market value than the fish we give away to Russian vessels. We can produce more expensive, high-quality fish fillets and sell those to European buyers. Once we sell, the price goes up almost double,” he said.

Reynheim noted the logistic costs of Russian ships repackaging and dispatching their catch at Faroese ports alone adds $53 million to the total value.

When asked about ending trade with Russia as a repercussion of the war of the Ukraine, he pointed to a continued export agreement for corn and wheat between Russia and Ukraine and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres´ advice to keep transporting food products between trade countries. 

“Remember that the Russians primarily send cheap fish that are high in protein to relatively poor consumers in their own country and West Africa,” he said conclusively.

The Faroese national elections are scheduled for Dec. 8. The fishing deal with Russia is usually automatically renewed if the Faroese government does not ask to cancel it.

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