29th Jan 2023

Mysterious Atlantic cable cuts linked to Russian fishing vessels

Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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/

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.


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

"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.

Underwater explosions were detected near Nord Stream leaks

Measuring stations connected to the Swedish National Seismic Network (SNSN) detected powerful underwater explosions close to the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. Poland has already declared it "sabotage".


Nordic parliaments agree mutual defence on cyberattacks

A cyberattack against one of the Nordic parliaments will be seen as an attack on them all, MPs at the annual council of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland agreed this week.

Supported by

Latest News

  1. Pressure mounts on EU to coordinate visas for Russian rights-defenders
  2. Dutch set to agree to US-led chip controls to China
  3. No record of Latvian MEP's 'official' Azerbaijan trip
  4. Why the new ECHR Ukraine-Russia ruling matters
  5. Europe continues to finance Russia's war in Ukraine with lucrative fossil fuel trades
  6. Official: EU parliament's weak internal rule-making body leads to 'culture of impunity'
  7. Red tape border logjam for EU's 1.3m 'frontier workers'
  8. Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  2. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  3. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  4. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  2. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  3. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  5. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  6. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us