Netherlands refuses access to Russian fishing vessels after espionage accusation

An aerial view of the port of Eemshaven in the Netherlands
A Russian fishing vessel was refused access to Eemshaven after accusations the vessel was involved in espionage | Photo courtesy of Make more Aerials/Shutterstock
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The Netherlands has officially cut off Russian fishing vessel access to the country following accusations that Russian vessels are being used to spy on Dutch ports. 

The Netherlands Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management Mark Harbers told members of parliament that his department intends to stop granting exemptions to Russian ships seeking to offload food products at Dutch ports. Under current European Union sanctions, ships sailing under the Russian flag are not allowed to enter any ports or locks in the E.U., with exceptions allowed for certain circumstances – including food products. 

Those exceptions were applied by the Netherlands to Russian-flagged ships delivering food products, including fishing vessels. However, an investigation by Pointer claimed that there was evidence Russian fishing vessels were being used to spy on foreign ports. 

According to the Pointer report, Russian fishing vessels and the crews on board must be trained and prepared for warfare and that Norebo vessels frequently dock near areas where military shipments are taking place.

Following the report, Harbers refused entry to vessels seeking to unload whitefish in Eemshaven “on the grounds of increasing geopolitical tensions and the upcoming tightening of European sanctions policy,” a post to the Netherlands House of Representatives said.

Following the initial refusal, the vessel asked for another exemption at a different port in Velsen, which was also refused.

“Future requests for an exemption for Russian-flagged ships for admission to a Dutch port will no longer be granted,” Harbers said. 

Russian fishing giant Norebo was at the center of the Pointer investigation and has refuted claims that it takes part in any espionage. It said on a posting to its website that it was contacted by Pointer and that the representatives of the investigation “misrepresented information.”

“It is clear that Pointer is not interested in obtaining reliable information about the factual circumstances and, instead, aims to fulfill slanderous and populist political objectives,” Norebo said. 

The latest ban by the Netherlands is not the first time that Russian fishing vessels have been allegedly linked to espionage.

An investigative report by NRK in April 2023 outlined a pattern of Russian fishing vessels allegedly being used to spy on infrastructure in the North Sea, based on automatic identification system (AIS) data indicating suspicious activity. According to the report, investigators found Soviet-era military radios hidden behind locked doors and uncovered clandestine exchanges involving at least 50 ships.

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