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Russia Unhappy with US Fisheries Agreements


February 1, 2020

The Skipsteknisk-designed ST-191 L, to be built for Russia's Okeanrybflot, will be among the world's largest purpose-built factory trawlers and will fish in the Russian far east when delivered in spring of 2021. Artwork courtesy of Skipsteknisk.

Russia has started revising the existing agreement between the United States and the USSR on the maritime border, which was signed on July 1, 1990, according to recent reports by certain senior officials of the Council of the Russian Federation, the upper house of the Russian Parliament and industry analysts. The agreement established a line of demarcation of the two countries' economic zones and the continental shelf in the seas between Bering and Chukotka.

These Russian officials say the signing of this agreement (which also affects the territorial waters in a small section of the Bering Strait) has caused serious losses for the Russian fishing industry, because its fishermen lost access to 77,700 square meters of fishing area in the bering sea, which was transferred to the jurisdiction of the United States.

According to Russian fishery experts and state officials, this area was of particular importance to Russia and its fishermen, mainly due to its rich reserves of pollock, herring, halibut, cod, flounder, and crabs.

The Russians cite recent calculations, carried out by experts from the Pan-Russian Association of Fishing Enterprises, Entrepreneurs and Exporters (VARPE), (one of the main Russian public associations in the field of fishing), according to which the amount of losses in the Russian fishing sector as a result of this agreement since 1990 has reached almost 150 billion rubles ($ 2.3 billion) and is currently continuing to grow.

In fact, the agreement, which was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker, so far, has been implemented by Russia on a temporary basis. Unlike the US, that ratified the agreement in 1991, the USSR, then Russia, never affixed a definitive signature to it.

According to a recent report published by the Russian Audit Chamber (which is the financial regulator in Russia), the agreement does not align with the interests of the Russian state in the area of fisheries and needs to be revised.

In its report, the Chamber said the agreement had resulted in fish catch losses to Russia of 1.6 to 1.9 million tons. As a result, some Russian senators have already launched the proceedings to withdraw from the agreement.

For example, Boris Nevzorov, a senator from the Kamchatka region, (one of the fish production centers in Russia), has already submitted a petition to the Council of the Russian Federation, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, asking for consideration of the issue and its potential negative impact on the Russian fishing industry.

Nevzorov says because of the concessions made by Shevardnadze at that time, the border was fixed in the interest of the American side and resulted in the loss of an area comparable to the territory of the Czech Republic or the Austria in the bering sea.

"Because of the Shevardnadze-Baker line, Russia has lost the opportunity to produce more than 500,000 tons of fish and crab per year and develop the Northern Sea Route," Nevzorov says.

Based on the results of the investigation, it is expected that the Council of the Federation could raise the question of the termination of the agreement by Russia on a unilateral basis, which could take place in the first half of 2020.

However, most Russian analysts believe that, despite the serious drawbacks of this agreement, it would be better to avoid its termination, as this will have negative consequences for Russia and its fishing sector.

According to them, this limited cooperation, which still exists between Russia and the United States (especially in the North) is one of the last examples of existing cooperation between countries in a very difficult geopolitical environment.

Spokesperson for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "If you look at the work of the Arctic Council, the United States currently has more disagreements with Canada than it does with Russia."

In fact, discussions between the parties regarding the definition of a dividing line began in 1977, after the introduction of a practice of defining 200-mile fishing zones. It was the United States that proposed to separate the fishing zones, because the borders, which had existed since the sale of Alaska by the Russian Empire, were only informal. Already in 1977, the United States had received a small section in the disputed area, which was transferred to it by the USSR as part of annual compensation (in the form of quotas). These compensations were based on figures from the Soviet annual harvest in this water area at the beginning of the 1970s, which varied between 150,000 and 160,000 tons per year.

Compensation was paid until 1981 and was suspended after the start of the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan and the sanctions imposed on the country at that time. Despite this, the two countries continued their negotiations on the dividing line in the Bering and Chukchi seas, while the United States, for its part, insisted on the transfer of the area of water total of 18,000 square kilometers. In 1986, an agreement for joint fishing operations in these disputed areas was signed.

According to Vyacheslav Zilanov, Soviet and Russian diplomat and head of the Soviet delegation on fishing during the 1970s-1980s talks, there is currently a joint Russian-American state commission on fishing, which continues discussions behind closed doors. The main objective for Russia this time is to reach an agreement, which will allow the country to resume fishing in these areas lost in 1990 and restore the area of the 200 miles limit, which has been reduced. In the meantime, most Russian fisheries analysts believe that this is not the only major failure of Russian diplomacy in the world fishing industry in recent years.

In 2010, a similar agreement (in terms of limiting Russian fishing) was signed by the Russian government with Norway and which involved the delimitation of the Barents Sea and the establishment of new harvest rules for both countries. Under the agreement, Russia has lost the right to fish in the western part of the Barents Sea and Spitsbergen, which was transferred under Norwegian jurisdiction. The direct losses resulting from this agreement to Russia amounted to more than 300,000 tons of fish per year.


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