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Stories from Norway

Breaking the waves with the fish police

The Coast Guard keeps Norwegian and foreign fishing boats in check by patrolling the border, inspecting catches, monitoring activity and – most importantly – being a vital and trustworthy part of the sea community.

Breaking the waves with the fish police

In Kirkenes, Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway, a massive grey hull is sliding majestically through the winter ice. The vessel is named KV “Farm”, belongs to the Norwegian Coast Guard and has set out to inspect trawlers, local fishing boats and seine fishers over the next few weeks.

That’ll have to wait for later, though. At minus 27 degrees Celsius, everything – quite literally – is frozen. Most boats are forced to put their fishing on hold.

A world of contrasts

Three weeks later, “Farm” is docked near Sortland Naval Base, where commander Stig Flått and his crew are ready to leave the ship. Clear signs of spring, with temperatures well above zero, have arrived in Sortland, giving some idea of the enormous contrasts in conditions facing the Coast Guard as it makes its way along Norway’s northern coastline. The force also faces a formidable range of tasks. Commander Stig Flått explains that the coast guard crew constitutes the executive arm of a number of institutions – including the Royal Norwegian Navy, the Norwegian Coast Administration, the police and customs authorities – and no two days are the same.

“70 percent of our time is dedicated to control of fishing and resources, but there’s always a whole range of tasks coming our way – such as border patrol, oil recovery and tugboat operations, environmental monitoring, facilitating ocean research, search and rescue … The list goes on,” the commander says.
“If I had to pick the most essential part of our job, I would have to say being present in the coastal communities, communicating with the industry and helping people when things don’t go according to plan. That’s what gives me the greatest satisfaction doing this job.”
In short, we know everything about what’s going on along the Norwegian coast at any given time.
Commander Stig Flått
Norwegian Coast Guard
"The Norwegian approach so far has been that a physical presence combined with new technology is the most effective."
Stein-Åge Johnsen
The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries

The importance of a physical presence

The government agency that works most closely with the Coast Guard is The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. Together, they are working actively to make sure that the Norwegian environmental model is preserved at sea and on the mainland. From a practical perspective, this includes ensuring fair business practice, fish welfare, sustainability, food safety and quality – all important Norwegian ideals.

Stein-Åge Johnsen, head of section at the directorate, explains the historical background for the establishment of a “fish police”. “The Coast Guard as we know it today was established 42 years ago, as a consequence of Norway expanding its marine area to an economic zone of 200 nautical miles. The main responsibility was, and is, enforcing Norwegian sovereignty and regulations within this zone, but a number of important social tasks have come along the way.”

Johnsen has only praise for the cooperation between the Coast Guard and the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. “We’ve worked together on a number of successful projects”, he says, commending the Norwegian Coast Guard’s hands-on approach to how they enforce control at sea.

Good days outnumbering the bad

With a few notable exceptions – such as the notorious Elektron incident in 2005, when a trawler boarded by two Norwegian inspectors fled out of Norwegian waters, comes to mind – life on a Coast Guard vessel carries on with little incident.

In fact, a vast majority of the Coast Guard’s inspections proceed without any drama at all, according to commander Stig Flått. Only 2-3 percent of the inspected ships are reported – most of them for minor transgressions. This means that the Norwegian model is highly respected and working.

“Of course, there are times when the atmosphere turns a bit sour. Being inspected by us, maybe several times in a row, isn’t exactly fun. We get that, but most fishermen are luckily as professional about their job as we are – they welcome us on board and let us do our job, and then we part as friends,” he says.

An ever-changing world

As a naval officer with 23 years of experience at sea, Flått has seen a lot of changes in the fishing industry. The number of vessels has decreased, while the fishing quotas have remained the same.

“Of course, all aspects of fishing have modernised over the last few decades. We come across ships that look like floating laboratories – squeaky clean and technologically refined. It’s very impressive. At the same time, as an inspectorate, we have been through the same transformation. Our methods and means of intelligence have improved dramatically.”

The same goes for the natural world, which is constantly evolving. New species such as snow crab and king crab are moving along the seabed of the Norwegian Sea, while melting ice has expanded the fishing areas further north. The fish police are without a doubt at the cutting edge of the campaign for ocean protection, constantly adapting to ensuring the sustainability of the sea.