A Russian trawler accused of illegal fishing has escaped from Norwegian patrol boats with two Norwegian fisheries inspectors aboard after a five-day chase across Arctic seas.
Norway accuses the trawler of using an illegal mesh inside its main nets to scoop up undersize fish.
The rusting "Elektron" sailed into Russian waters early on Wednesday in a snow storm and 9 meter (30 ft) high seas having defied Norwegian attempts to arrest the vessel in a diplomatic row over Arctic fishing rights. Norway's coastguard boarded the trawler off the Svalbard islands north of the Arctic Circle on Saturday and the coastguard was escorting it back to a Norwegian port when the "Elektron" switched course and headed for Russia. The coastguard gave up the chase when the "Elektron" entered Russian waters after the captain refused demands to surrender. Norway said that the two inspectors, who had not been mistreated, should be quickly handed back. "This case is not embarrassing for Norway. It's hard for us here in the south to imagine how it is to work in high waves and a storm," Defence Minister Anne-Grete Stroem-Erichsen told NRK public TV when asked why the coastguard did not stop the vessel. "It's a serious case because we have two Norwegian officials aboard," she said. The chief of police in Troms, northern Norway, now wants to charge the captain of the "Elektron" with kidnapping, Norwegian media reported. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has said the inspectors would be handed back to Norway on Wednesday but stormy weather has delayed the arrival of the Elektron off the Russian coast. Norway accuses the trawler of using an illegal sock-like mesh inside its main trawling nets to scoop up even the smallest fish. Nets are meant to have holes big enough to allow small fish to escape to maintain fish stocks. "This is an environmental crime of the worst sort," said Rear Admiral Trond Grytting, head of Norway's armed forces in the northern region. No warning shots But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Moscow did not recognize the unilateral protection zone for fisheries set up by Norway in the north Atlantic. In the past, the Norwegian coastguard has stopped ships by firing warning shots or by maneuvering so close that the vessels stopped out of fear of collision. But Norway's navy did not fire any warning shots and did not try to ensnare the "Elektron" with rope, as some media reported, Lieutenant Colonel John Lien of the Norwegian military's northern command told Reuters. "The whole time we have had security and safety as priority and we would not start any action that would harm the personnel," he said. Norway and Russia disagree over fishing rights. The Svalbard Treaty of 1925 gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago but gave all other signatories, including Russia, rights to exploit the area including in territorial waters. In 1977, Norway unilaterally set up a 200-mile fishing zone around Svalbard, but its protection zone is only recognized by Finland and Canada. It says all nations can fish in the waters but have to stick to strict quotas.