Owners of ships sailing in Svalbard may be able to avoid switching the registration of their vessels from international to domestic despite a July 1 deadline imposed last summer by the Norwegian Maritime Authority to make the change. The delay occurred after the NMA consulted with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries about the interpretation of The Norwegian International Ship Register.
The deadline provoked strong reactions when it became known NIS-registered ships would lose the right to operate in Svalbard. A high number of vessels would be affected including, among others, the MS Langøysund tourist ship, Hurtigruten's MS Fram expedition ship and the MS Norbjørn cargo ship.
The NIS act clearly states ships in the registery are unable to carry cargo or passengers between Norwegian ports, or to engage in regular passenger routes between Norwegian and foreign ports.
Ministry Undersecretary Dilek Ayhan, a Conservative Party member, emphasized the ministry hasn't adapted a new interpretation of the act, but is merely responding to the inquiry from the NMA concerning last year's interpretation of the NIS regarding Section 4 and Norwegian ports.
"The understanding was initially that this is not a new interpretation, but the ministry was not aware of the extent of NIS vessels that are already operating in Svalbard in violation of this provision," Ayhan wrote in an e-mail to Svalbardposten.
But many ships have approval for such voyages.
"This is almost something to cry about," said Erik Mathisen, general manager of Norbjørn AS, in an interview last summer. His company has had permission since 2002 to sail with cargo between Tromsø, Barentsburg and Longyearbyen under NIS registration.
The ministry is now putting the brakes on the re-registration deadline and planning to spend the rest of the year assessing changes in the regulations, allowing ships to continue as they have previously.
Ayhan said the reaction to the planned changes made them aware of the consequences and they have subsequently been meeting with industry officials.
"The problem of trade areas in Svalbard has not been discussed in the trade area committee," a letter sent Jan. 13 to the NMA states. "The ministry wants to make a thorough assessment of whether there should be a proposed change in the regulations that allow ships operating in Svalbard to be registered in the NIS."
"It is natural that this assessment is done before a deadline expires," Ayhan wrote.