Aging fleet jeopardizing future of ecosystem mapping in Arctic Russia

View onboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov, Russia’s newest research vessel. A fire onboard the Vilnyus, an aging Russian research vessel, throws doubt on the country’s ability to lead ecosystem mapping in the Barents Sea. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)
As one of Russia’s aging marine research vessels burns at port in Murmansk, northwest Russia, scientists warn there is no capacity left to do ecosystem mapping.

The fire onboard the Vilnyus started early morning on the 1st of November and destroyed the ship’s freezing and storage chambers, as well as the fish processing unit. The vessel was docked at the Murmansk Fisheries Port and no one was hurt, the local emergency authority informs (in Russian). But the ship is unlikely to ever make it back to sea.

The Vilnyus was one of regional fisheries research institute PINRO’s few operational ships and has for years taken part in ecosystem mapping in the Barents Sea, often in cooperation with Norwegian researchers.

It was an aging ship built in 1984 and technical problems were abundant. This year, the Vilnyus and its crew had to skip major parts of the major annual ecosystem mapping expedition conducted together with the Norwegian Marine Research Institute because of the problems.

Both Russian and Norwegian researchers despaired. The mapping is considered of crucial importance for the annual fish quota regulations in the region.

National priority

The Vilnyus was probably ready to be scrapped in any case. But the fire onboard the ship has still raised to the forefront Russia’s need for new research vessels.

The country has major ambitions in the field of marine research and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year made clear that he wants Russia to become among the top five countries in the world in studies of the sea.

“We have to get involved in the study of the World Ocean,” the premier said in a cabinet meeting. “We have to engage special research vessels with unlimited range in the studies of the Arctic and Antarctic,” he underlined, a report from the Federal Fisheries Agency reads (in Russian).

New ships to be built
Russia plans to build several ships, but funds to meet those goals have been scarce so far. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)

Several ships are planned to be built. But it will take both time and money. The Federal Fisheries Agencies aims for the construction of three new vessels for ecosystem monitoring, but so far allocations from government is scarce. According to newspaper Kommersant (in Russian), the Agency has got only 900 million rubles (€12 million) for a ship design study.

One vessel is estimated to cost at least 10 billion rubles. And the development phase could take up to four years.

The first preparation phase is conducted by the Alekseev’s Design Bureau and was to be completed by first half of 2018, Fisheries Agency leader Ilya Shestyakov told Kommersant.

The Fisheries Agency today has a fleet of 30 aging ships, of which 21 are in operation. That number is to be cut to 18 by year’s end. With the loss of the Vilnyus, that number will drop to 17.

Norwegians ready to help

Russia is a superpower in international fisheries and its pelagic stocks are of big importance both for the country itself and its neighbors. Following the technical problems with the Vilnyus this year, the Norwegian Marine Research Institute made clear that it was ready to let one of its vessels engage in ecosystem mapping also in Russian waters.

The comprehensive joint Norwegian, Russian ecosystem mapping in the Barents Sea has been conducted annually for the past 14 years and is of crucial importance for the setting of the catch quotas by the two countries’ joint Fisheries Commission.

With the breakdown and subsequent loss of the Vilnyus the Russian side might not be able to follow up on its obligations in the cooperation.

Research Director at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research Geir Huse confirms that his institute will apply for permission to enter Russian waters during next year’s ecosystem expedition.

In a meeting with Russian Fisheries Agency leader Shestyakov in mid-October, the two sides signed a protocol which underlines the importance of comprehensive ecosystem mapping of both the Norwegian and Russian sides of the Barents Sea.

Part of bigger problem

It is not only the Russian ecosystem researchers that suffer from lack of vessels. Also other key research institutes in the country are unable to fully meet objectives because of aging fleets. Among them is Roshydromet, the meteorology institute.

In an interview with Kommersant (in Russian), Roshydromet leader Maksim Yakovenko admits that his institute has a “critical situation” with regards to its Arctic fleet.

“It is connected with money,” Yakovenko says, and makes clear that a good research vessel for northern conditions will cost up to 15 billion rubles.

The institute now has a fleet of 19 vessels, the newest one is the Akademik Tryoshnikov from 2012.

Some money is in the pipeline. The Russian government has allocated 28 billion rubles for the period 2019-2024. That is to cover the building of two new research ships.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada will buy a sixth Arctic and offshore patrol ship, CBC News

China: China opens bids for its first nuclear-powered icebreaker, The Independent Barents Observer

Finland: Finnish researcher’s animation shows climate warming at startling speed, Yle News

Norway: Norway, Russia sign agreement on cross-border seismic mapping of Barents Sea, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian and American scientists team up to study Arctic Russia’s weakening sea ice, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: U.S. Congress authorizes six icebreakers in Pentagon bill, Alaska Public Media

Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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