For decades, Murmansk was the by far biggest port hub in the Arctic, serving a powerful fishery industry and the major mining and metallurgy enterprises of the Kola Peninsula. Today, the ports of Murmansk remain key Arctic infrastructure objects of major strategic importance to the regional economy. However, they are increasingly challenged by ports in neighboring Norway.
Data obtained by BarentsObserver show that northern Norwegian ports in 2012 handled a total of 41,4 million tons, while Russian Arctic ports the same year had a turnover of 36,6 million. The Norwegian side includes ports in the three northernmost counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark, while the Russian side includes ports in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Oblasts, as well as the Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
For the first time, it is now the county of Nordland, which is the biggest in the Barents Region in terms of port goods turnover. While ports in Nordland in 2012 handled a total of 31,7 million tons, the ports in Murmansk Oblast handled only 28,2 million tons. Furthermore, the trends in the two regions are quite the opposite, with major decline in Murmansk and growth in Nordland. While the Murmansk ports in 2009 handled 40,7 million tons, the Nordland ports the same year handled 25,5 million tons, a change of respectively 31 percent and 24 percent compared with results from 2012.
The Murmansk Commercial Sea Port remains the biggest single port in the Barents Region. But the Norwegian port of Narvik is catching up. In 2012, the Murmansk port handled 23,8 million tons, while Narvik handled 19,4 millions. The major growth in Narvik over the last five years (35%) comes as iron ore shipments by railway from the Swedish mining company LKAB beat the records. In Murmansk, the negative figures must be seen partly on the backdrop of stagnating regional industry, partly in connection with a decrease in oil transshipments.
Beyond the Murmansk Commercial Sea Port, the biggest ports in the Murmansk region are the Murmansk Fish Port, the Kandalaksha Port and the Vitino Port.
Also Arkhangelsk is experiencing a decline in shipping. Data from the Russian State Statistical Service show that the regional ports in 2012 handled a total of 8,38 million tons, a decline from 11,27 million tons in 2010.
The growth trend is on the Norwegian side of the border, and not only in the county of Nordland. In Finnmark, the northernmost Norwegian region, the ports in 2012 handled a total of 8,1 million tons, an increase of 25 percent from 2009 and of more than 500 percent since 2002. The biggest port growth in Finnmark takes place in Hammerfest and Kirkenes, two ports handling major amounts of oil products and ore respectively.
The oil industry will over the next years be a driving force in regional port development. Several offshore projects are in the pipeline and the need for well-functioning ports for base operations are increasing. In the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, investors are in the process of developing a new oil terminal and service base. In neighboring Murmansk, leading Russian oil company Rosneft is engaging in the development of the Murmansk Transport Hub, an infrastructure project which aims at reviving the role of Murmansk in Arctic shipping.
The Norwegian side might however have a set of comparative advantages. Commenting on developments, Kirkenes Port Director Eivind Gade Lundlie in an interview with BarentsObserver highlighted the positive role of the local airport, well-developed hotel capacities, as well as competent local companies “hungry for new projects”. He added that the oil and gas companies tend to prefer Kirkenes to the neighboring Russian ports because of its low level of bureaucracy and its efficient logistics and customs services. In addition, the Norwegian side does not require visa for Schengen citizens or western oilmen.