Fisheries Scientists to Government: No Drilling in Lofoten

Ole Arve Misund, senior scientist and former executive director at the Institute of Marine Research and current director at the University Centre at Svalbard, told the Norwegian government that the Lofoten-Vesteralen zone is too important to the cod fishery to be opened for oil exploration. (Photo: Christi Turner)

Scientists urged the Norwegian government to protect the invaluable spawning grounds of the northeast Arctic cod, despite its potential value as an oil field.


In its advisory role to the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, the Institute of Marine Research does not tend to oppose the development of Norway’s coastal and offshore oil industry.  But IMR senior scientist and former executive director Ole Arve Misund said that when it comes to the Lofoten-Vesteralen site, the stakes are different.

“Our advice is not to open that area for oil exploration,” Misund said.  “This has continued to be IMR’s advice for a long time.  That is the most important spawning ground for cod.”

Misund and his colleague Erik Olsen publicized their advice in an article released this week in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.  The article emphasized that the risks associated with oil exploration are far too high, and the consequences of an accident in Lofoten-Vesteralen would be “much more serious than in any other part of the Norwegian marine environment.”

The northeast Arctic cod represents the most valuable fishery in the Barents Sea, and recommendations for the fishery’s total allowable catch are at record high levels.  It is the world’s largest cod stock, and recognized as one of the most sustainably managed.  But Misund said that oil exploration in Lofoten-Vesteralen poses a direct threat to this thriving species.

“When the cod is feeding up in the Barents Sea, it is rather dispersed, and an oil accident up there would only affect a minor proportion of the stock,” Misund said.  “But if it happened at Lofoten at the worst time of year, it might have a considerable effect on the spawning stock.  In the worst case scenario, entire year classes could more or less disappear.” 

Misund cited the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, which decimated the region’s vital herring fishery just after it had reached record harvests. Even after more than 20 years of cleanup efforts and scientific monitoring, the species is still listed as “not recovering.”  A similar scenario for the northeast Arctic cod is not hard for Misund to imagine.

Every year for at least 1,000 years, the northeast Arctic cod have been returning to the warm waters of Lofoten to spawn, between February and April.  Indeed, the cod fishery has been the backbone of historical development of the communities and cities along the western Norwegian coastline.

Given the extreme biological, historical and economic importance of the region, why then does the pressure to drill remain so high?  

For one thing, there is probably a whole lot of oil beneath this particular chunk of the seafloor.

The Ministry of Oil and Energy reports a 95 percent probability of finding at least 76 million cubic meters of oil equivalents - about the amount of energy released from burning 90 million tonnes of oil. This represents 2.92 percent of Norway’s total estimated undiscovered petroleum resources.

And that would be worth a lot of money - as much as NOK 50 billion (EUR 6.3 billion).  

“That’s the tension,” Misund said.  “Of course the value of the fisheries is not that much - 50 billion is the total value of two years of all Norwegian fisheries.”

For the time being, the governing coalition formed by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour Party, the Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party remains opposed to opening the Lofoten-Vesteralen site to oil exploration.  But with parliamentary elections approaching in September, Misund fears that the situation may change. No matter the election results, he said that IMR will stand by its advice to protect the cod fishery.

“Every winter they must return to the warm waters of Lofoten to spawn,” Misund said. “This is the way it has been, the way nature has developed the northeast Arctic cod stock.  We shouldn’t do damage to its spawning habitat. That is our fundamental argument.”

The Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs said it values the advice it receives from IMR, and will keep its advice and vast knowledge base in mind when reevaluating the Lofoten-Vesteralen management plan in the next parliamentary period.