Critics try to reel in Fisheries Minister

Norway’s new government minister in charge of fisheries and coastal affairs has had to swim upstream lately through a torrent of questions over her impartiality in issues involving fish farming. Lisbeth Berg-Hansen is part owner of a fish-farming business that’s under police investigation for high levels of parasites that can threaten wild salmon.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s appointment of Berg-Hansen earlier this fallset off immediate concerns from some groups representing traditional fishermen who rely on wild fish stocks. They’re skeptical of fish-farming operations (called oppdrett in Norwegian) because of fears they can spread parasites and disease into the wild stocks.

Stoltenberg defended his choice, saying that Berg-Hansen “knows politics and the seafood industry well” and had been “involved in fish farming for many years … and active in fisheries organizations.” Stoltenberg claimed Berg-Hansen, who’s also been a board member of Aker Seafoods ASA, “represents coastal Norway, where we will safeguard jobs.”

It’s Berg-Hansen’s role as co-owner and board member of salmon producer Sinkaberg-Hansen AS that has upset environmental groups, wild salmon advocates and Stoltenberg’s opposition parties in Parliament. They claim Berg-Hansen is awash in conflicts of interest at a time when the fishing industry is facing serious problems from rising levels of parasites at fish farms. Three of Sinkaberg-Hansen’s production sites have higher levels than allowed and are again under police investigation.

Qualifications in question

The Conservative Party (Høyre) charged this week that Berg-Hansen should be disqualified from handling all issues involving fish farming. Environmental group Bellona agrees, and they’ve demanded that Stoltenberg address their concerns.

Bellona also complained on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday that Berg-Hansen has “sent a bad signal” after her firm refused to slaughter its own salmon suspected of spreading of parasites. Other salmon producers, Bellona argued, can now refuse to slaughter as well.

Another environmental group, Norges Miljøvernforbund , filed charges against Berg-Hansen, claiming that her own economic interests prompted her to violate the regulations she’s supposed to enforce.

Stoltenberg has continued to defend Berg-Hansen and said her impartiality will be evaluated from case to case. Per-Kristian Foss, a former Finance Minister who represents the Conservatives on the Parliament’s control committee, calls that “intolerable.”

Berg-Hansen, who this week was calling in Norway’s largest fishing players to discuss the salmon parasite issue, has other defenders. Georg Rieber-Mohn, who formerly led a wild salmon commission, wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that he has worked with Berg-Hansen and claimed she’s aware that the problems around fish farming are “out of control.” He claimed she agrees that fish farming as it operates today is not sustainable, based on her own knowledge of the business and conditions for wild salmon.

Rieber-Mohn thus claimed that Berg-Hansen is “a minister for our time.”