February 13, 2019 / 11:02 PM / in 5 months

Norwegian court to rule on snow crabs, with hints for Arctic oil

OSLO, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The Norwegian Supreme Court will rule on Thursday on whether European Union fishing boats need permits from Oslo to catch snow crabs off Arctic islands north of Norway, in a verdict that could affect future rights to explore for oil and gas in the area.

Chief justice Toril Marie Oie will read the verdict from about 9 a.m. (0800 GMT), responding to an appeal by a Latvian fishing firm against fines imposed last year for catching snow crab round the remote Svalbard Islands.

At issue is whether the snow crab - whose meat is a delicacy for gourmets from Canada to Japan - is a sedentary species living on the seabed or moves around like fish, and who gets to control the stocks.

Non-EU member Norway argues that snow crabs are sedentary like corals or oysters and that as such under the U.N. Law of the Sea they are a resource belonging to the continental shelf of Norway.

If it loses the case and the EU can stake a claim over the snow crab, it could be harder for Oslo to secure its claim over potential oil and gas resources.

A lower Norwegian court in 2018 upheld Norway’s view that only Oslo has the authority to issue snow crab licences.

But the Latvian firm, SIA North Star, argues that the crabs are not sedentary because they scurry around and so should be regulated under regional fisheries accords signed by parties including the European Union and Russia.

It argues that it had a valid EU permit.

SIA North Star also argues that Norway is obliged under an international 1920 treaty to allow other nations access to the waters around Svalbard.

That treaty grants sovereignty to Norway but gives other signatories rights to engage in commercial activities on and around Svalbard. Russia, for instance, runs a coal mine on Svalbard.

But Oslo says rights to exploit resources around Svalbard extend only to a narrow band of just 12 nautical miles offshore.

The court will also decide if the snow crab catches by the Latvian firm were illegal under Norwegian law, irrespective of the Svalbard Treaty. (Reporting by Alister Doyle Editing by Frances Kerry)

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