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10th Dec 2022

Mysterious Atlantic cable cuts linked to Russian fishing vessels

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Few took notice when a 4.2-km subsea cable in the Arctic Ocean vanished without trace back in April 2021, but these days undersea infrastructure security has become a hot topic.

The cable had connected the Norwegian archipelago, Svalbard, to mainland Norway, where data was filtered by Norwegian environmental and defence authorities.

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  • Norway and Russia agreed on 25 October on a fisheries agreement for 2023. This is the most important and largest bilateral fisheries agreement Norway has. (Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth/norden.org)

Packed with sensors, the fiberoptic lines measured environmental conditions and fish migration, recording images and sound, and sending all the information back to shore.

They could also be used as drifting hydrophones to listen for passing vessels for security purposes.

You can listen to the sound of a large tanker here, for example.

The data used to end up on monitors at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research — but on 3 April 2021 the screens suddenly went blank.

"We lost power and everything died", recalled Geir Pedersen, the responsible scientist for the Norwegian LoVe project operating the cables.

Inspectors mounted an expensive operation to see what happened. It took them until November 2021 to find a 3-km chunk of severed cable out at sea, some 11km out of position.

"Either a trawl or an anchor grabbed the cable and dragged it. We're pretty sure about that. When we inspected one of the ends of the cable it was clearly cut with a power tool which means it had been brought on to a vessel and manually cut", Pedersen told EUobserver.

"It could have been an accident or it could have been sabotage. We don't know and I think we'll never find out", he said.

The severed Svalbard cable is to cost €5.6m to repair and to be fully operational in 2024, amounting to years of lost scientific input.

Journalists at Norway's public broadcaster, NRK, also looked into the incident by comparing ship positions using AIS vessel tracking data.

This showed a Russian trawler had crossed over the cable at the time when the ocean researchers received its last signal.

Another cable to Svalbard operated by Space Norway was also damaged on 7 January 2022.

And the NRK journalists again found that a Russian fishing trawler had passed over the cables 20 times in the days before and after the subsea line was damaged.

Crew on the Russian fishing vessel were questioned by local police at the time, but no charges were pressed.

There's nothing unusual about Russian fishing boats sailing over the cables, which are openly marked on Norwegian sea maps, or calling at Norwegian ports.

The two countries have a cooperation agreement on fishing since the mid-1970s and negotiate yearly fishing quotas.

Cod breeds in the Russian marine zone and swims to the Norwegian area before becoming a mature fish in a single ecosystem.

Russian and Norwegian fishermen are allowed to come and go in each other's waters under arrangements meant to protect sustainable fishing.

Russian boats that land fish in Norwegian ports can also sell it as Norwegian fish no matter where they caught it, in a lucrative business.

Fishy?

The Svalbard cable damage was dismissed as most likely being down to human error.

But, in February, Russia's invasion of Ukraine drastically altered the implications of Norway's vulnerabilities.

And in September, the explosions on the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea caused open alarm in Nato on the security of undersea infrastructure from potential Russian attacks.

Two weeks later, Norway closed access for Russian fishing vessels to almost all Norwegian ports.

"We have monitored Russian activity in Norwegian waters and harbours closely to avoid that Norway becomes a transit country for illegal transport of goods to Russia", Norwegian foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt said at the time, announcing the restrictions.

"Tough sanctions across Europe have led to Russian needs for goods and technology. They do all they can to get hold of these goods in other ways", she added.

Russian boats are still allowed to call in three Norwegian ports — Kirkenes, Tromsø, and Båtsfjord — despite the wider ban, in the name of good fishing relations.

And amid the heightened tensions, fish is one thing the two sides have been able to agree on in recent times.

Oslo and Moscow have renewed their bilateral fisheries agreement for 2023 via digital talks.

"It is good that we have concluded a fisheries agreement with Russia, despite the fact that we are in an extraordinary situation," Norway's fisheries and oceans minister, Bjørnar Skjæran, said of the deal this week.

"The agreement ensures marine management in the northern areas that is both long-term and sustainable, and in this way, we take care of the world's largest cod stock and the other species in the Barents Sea", he added.

Faroese cable

But if that seemed like a positive development, even as Russia was holding talks with Norway it happened again — on 15 October, a cable linking Scotland, via the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands to the Faroe Islands, was cut twice.

"We expect it will be fishing vessels that damaged the cable but it's very rare that we have two problems at the same time", Faroese Telecom's head of infrastructure, Páll Vesturbú, told the BBC.

The latest severed-cable incident comes amid a Faroese debate on whether to cut back on its fishing business with Russia — a key sector for the tiny nation of just 53,000 people.

The Faroe Islands is not a member of the EU, but has chosen to follow most EU sanctions on Russia, except for fisheries.

The fact Norway can still see eye to eye with Russia on fish might take the pressure off Faroese prime minister Bárður á Steig Nielsen to curb Russian cooperation.

But whoever cut the Faroese cable has contributed to a more heated political debate.

"I believe that we must stop all cooperation with Russia," Faroese foreign minister and Centre Party leader, Jenis av Rana, told news portal In.fo.

"I know that the Russian sailors who are with the ships in the Faroe Islands are innocent, as most Russians are. But we cannot use that as an excuse for doing nothing," he said.

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