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Fish trader fears 20 years of hard work could be ruined

Brede Sæther has been working with fish-trade between northern Norway and Russia's Kola Peninsula for two decades and hopes the import ban soon will be lifted.

KIRKENES: “We are now 12 employees without earnings because of Russia’s ban of Norwegian fish from the market,” says Brede Sæther, Director of Kirkenes Trading, a company exporting seafood to Russia.

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From January 1st, Russian food safety authorities has put a partially ban on fish from Norway, striking 485 Norwegian companies. Moscow argues that the system for quality control is way too lax, resulting in low-quality fish to enter the Russian market. The claim is that Norway’s Veterinarian authorities should do a more comprehensive check of the sea food producers before export. 

Salmonella and E. coli bacteria are two discoveries made by the Russian Veterinarian agency that worries. The single few discoveries have triggered the universal ban that now dramatically affects nearly all Norwegian fish export to Russia. 

“It is wrong to include the entire seafood business in such ban, excluding all from the Russian market,” says Brede Sæther to BarentsObserver. From Murmansk, Sæther runs Murmansktorgsnabservice (MTSS), a company whose major activity is wholesale trade of fish seafood produced in Norway. Home in Norway, Brede Sæther owns the company Kirkenes Trading. Established in 1995 the main activity is fish export to Russia.

”Those who can’t deliver quality and can’t play by the rules that apply should be excluded. We in MTSS do also understand the Norwegian food safety authorities’ position. It would be nearly impossible to inspect all that is exported,” says Brede Sæther. 

The import restrictions are imposed on a long list of fish including herring, cod, haddock and capelin, but do not affect salmon and trout, which Russia imports in large quantities. In 2013, Russia’s import of seafood from Norway amounted to €691 million.

For Brede Sæther and his colleagues, the situation is becoming critical. “We are now 12 employees without earnings because of Russia’s ban of Norwegian fish from the market. 20 years of hard work and efforts in the Barents Region seems to be collapsing.”

Moscow’s ban on Norwegian seafood does not only harm the Norwegians. Here in Murmansk, prices of seafood have increased by 15 to 20 percent since New Year. Seafood producers have a hard time feeding the market since they can’t find enough fish. 

The main question still remains unanswered. Is it really veterinarian reasons that lay behind this ban of seafood from Norway? BarentsObserver has asked several other companies exporting seafood to Russia about comments. Very few will exert. Some compare the ban with Russia’s ban of pure mineral water from Georgia some years ago, a moved broadly believed to be political motivated.  Other’s point to the big money involved and internal struggles between different domestic cartels involved in seafood trade.

Geir Hønneland is Research Director with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo and has for decades been studying Russian fisheries management and international relations in the European North. He believes it is more a question about getting control over financial flows.

“The Russian bureaucracy’s ways are inscrutable. Different stakeholders have different agendas, institutional and economic. It is not necessarily pure corruption, but it’s all probably more about getting control over financial flows than on the quality of the fish, or the protection of private fish farms, for that matter,” Geir Hønneland argues. 

Brede Sæther hopes Norwegian and Russian veterinarian authorities will get together and find a better understanding of each other’s point of view.“ It seems that the dialogue has been very bad for a long time. We have seen it many times when there have been problems associated with certificates, approval of boats, manufacturers etc. Sometimes it seems as if there has not been any dialogue.”

The import ban has also made its way into the regional Barents politics. Meeting with Murmansk Governor Marina Kovtun on Wednesday this week, County Major of Finnmark, Runar Sjåstad, will raise the issue well aware that the case might have to be solved in Moscow.  In a letter to Kovtun, Runar Sjåstad writes:

“A new year has just begun, and I look forward to continue building on our good relations, reaching for our common goal of further economic development in both our regions. In that regard, allow me to inform you that we have received concerns from companies in Finnmark that are experiencing a stop in their export of fish to Murmansk. The combination of a stop in export of this product and the fact that the fishery season now is approaching its peak, will have a detrimental effect on these companies’ ability to retain their current workforce. I would assume that this is also the case for the processing companies in Murmansk, that rely on import of fish from Finnmark.”

The letter is posted on the portal of Finnmark Regional Council.