Specialist in conflict resolution
12/12/2008 Seismic survey ships and fishing vessels may operate in the same waters but have no need to create a lot of racket for that reason, says Bjørn Nornes. He is the most experienced fishery expert on the NCS.
Bente Bergøy Miljeteig, Emile Ashley (photos)
The 68-year-old was the first person to play this role for seismic vessels shooting on the Norwegian continental shelf, and has been accompanying them for almost 30 years.
When I met him paying a visit to m/s L’Espoir, which had been weatherbound in Stavanger for several weeks, he felt his last expedition was behind him.
“Unless somebody tempts me out again, that is,” he admits. “That’s what happened this year.”
A gale is blowing in the North Sea, but Norwegian media reports that relations between fishing boats and seismic shooters have been equally stormy during 2008.
Most of the press attention has been on data gathering pursued by the NPD off the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands in the Norwegian Sea over the past two years for the Storting (parliament).
Mr Nornes has been astonished by these stories, and says he does not recognise the picture they paint. “This ‘war’ is a media creation,” he maintains.
“In my experience, seismic surveyors and fishermen manage by and large to reach agreement. Individuals may naturally have their own agenda, but that’ll always be the case.”
These words carry a certain amount of weight, since resolving conflicts is precisely his brief as a fishery expert. His involvement was sparked in 1980 by a specific incident.
He was then on the board of the fishermen’s association for Rogaland, the county which covers Stavanger. In the middle of a meeting, the phone rang to report that a seismic vessel had sailed over a net.
The dramatic aspect was that the fisherman had been caught in a rope attached to the net and the seismic ship had towed the fishing vessel by his foot.
That episode was a wake-up call. It turned out that no rules existed to regulate relations between seismic surveying and fishing.
Having fished off the USA, Mr Nornes was the member of the association who knew English and was asked to help prepare a manual in that language for fishery experts on seismic ships. That was the start of his involvement.
“I’ve stuck with the job until now because it’s been enjoyable,” he says. “It’s fun to travel around and meet new people. And a supplementary income is always welcome.”
He has been on survey expeditions from the North Sea up to the Barents Sea in the far north, serving on a total of 65 vessels. But he found life on board a bit lonesome.
The fishery expert is a supernumerary in relation to the crew, both seismic personnel and seafarers. Many nationalities are often represented on board, so it helps to be outgoing and able to speak English.
This job is not a career, but a sideline. Assignments can frequently last for a number of weeks, so it is not particularly family friendly.
The first thing Mr Nornes does when he comes aboard is to check that the papers and permits are in order. A seismic vessel must seek the NPD’s recommendation to survey a defined area during a given period.
A fishery expert has to be approved by the Directorate of Fisheries, and such clearance applies for a specified area and is of limited duration.
Before an expedition begins, Mr Nornes holds a kick-off meeting with the crew to brief them about what they can expect at sea.
Issues covered include the scale of fishing activity, what kinds of fish are being caught by what types of vessel and gear, and what this all means for seismic data gathering.
Maintaining a dialogue with the fishermen is important for avoiding unnecessary conflicts. Mr Nornes secures an overview of the fishing vessels in the area and contacts them in good time.
He explains what is in the offing, and the fishermen respond with their views. Plans for the survey are there- after adjusted and adapted.
“This process is usually entirely painless,” Mr Nornes observes, and makes it clear that style is as important as content in communication between the two sides.
“I’m concerned to ensure that we behave properly and treat people with respect. I try to adopt a softly-softly approach to avoid provocation.”
He emphasises that trust and credibility are crucial for getting his job done, and points out that the fishermen have a prior right to the sea.
If fishing is under way in an area, the principle is that seismic work must give way. And it is true that survey ships, with their streamers, can take up as much as 10-12 square kilometres – one nautical mile wide and three long.
Although an operation might be stopped by a conflict with fishing or poor weather, for instance, the meter continues ticking. One day’s halt could cost a couple of million kroner.
That bill has to be met by whoever has commissioned the survey. From that perspective, the fishery expert can have a direct effect on the bottom line.
“A good expert makes sure that they’re always ahead of the game, and anticipates circumstances which could arise,” says Mr Nornes.
A lot has changed on the NCS since Mr Nornes started this job. Most of the oil and gas activity was then concentrated off the south-west coast, and few companies were involved.
Language was not a problem, since almost all crew on seismic vessels and their support ships were Norwegians. Although the North Sea teemed with fishing vessels, the survey was usually two-dimensional with just a single easily-recoverable streamer.
The fishery experts were usually mature men with “ballast”, as Mr Nornes puts it. And it was also normal to involve fishermen before a survey. Working parties involving both sides laid the basis for good co-existence.
Today, exploration for and production of petroleum goes on across much of the NCS. Activity has moved further north and closer to land.
A number of “new” oil companies have also become involved, and high oil prices are one of the reasons for a boom in seismic surveying during recent years.
The vessels have become much more advanced, and can have up to 10-12 streamers trailing behind them. Breaking off work can have major practical and financial consequences.
Seismic survey ships work worldwide, and their crews have limited knowledge of local waters. That also applies to their support vessels, often the first to contact fishing boats.
“Support ship crew often know little about the regulations and Norwegian conditions,” Mr Nornes observes. “A fairly aggressive style can also cause misunderstandings and problems.”
The list of fishery experts available on the NCS is long, but Mr Nornes considers many of them to be inadequately prepared to do a good enough job.
“Almost anyone can qualify. The only requirement is a background as a fishing boat skipper. There’s a big need for training.”
An untrained and uncertain fishery expert can easily get off on the wrong foot as soon as he calls a fishing boat. Poor communication undermines the climate for cooperation.
Many of the experts also need training in writing reports. Some seismic and support ships are very multicultural, with up to 15-20 nationalities represented. That makes demands on both behaviour and English skills.
“The recent media attention being paid to seismic surveys shows that it’s also important to know how to deal with a journalist,” says Mr Nornes.
In his view, the manual supplied to fishery experts is not good enough – partly because only some of it has been translated into English.
He is pleased that the NPD and the fisheries directorate are starting to develop courses for fishery experts, with the first three-day programme due to take place next spring.
“There’s a job to do in this area,” he concludes.
In the news: First fishery expert on a seismic vessel on the NCS. Has almost 30 years of experience.
Involvement: Background in local politics and voluntary organisations, including a number of posts in the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association, and a member of committees working on issues relating to fishing and seismic surveying.