Russia is allegedly running a program to spy on NATO assets and key infrastructure from fishing vessels in the North Sea, according to a joint investigation by public broadcasters in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The investigation claims Russia has a fleet of vessels disguised as fishing trawlers and research vessels, equipped with underwater surveillance tools for mapping sabotage targets.

The first of a series of reports on this investigation was broadcast across Scandinavia by DR, NRK, SVT, and Yle on Wednesday night.

A review conducted by the broadcasters alleges that over the past 10 years, at least 50 Russian ships have been secretly collecting information in NATO waters.

Alleged Norebo links

The Taurus, a trawler owned by Norebo, was among the vessels the news outlets linked with the alleged surveillance program.

The vessel, which harvests in the Barents and Norwegian Seas and lands in various ports in northern Norway, recently drew suspicion from Norwegian authorities for a close encounter with a NATO submarine, the news report alleges.

Norebo, controlled by Russian billionaire Vitaly Orlov, is the largest fisheries quota holder in Russia, and a significant supplier of cod, haddock and pollock to world markets, including the UK and Europe.

Norebo took on Taurus in November 2021 when it acquired the assets of Murmansk-based FEST Group.

Although banned from EU and UK ports, Russian fishing vessels are still allowed access to some Norwegian ports.

At the beginning of December last year, the 64-meter-long Taurus was docked in Tromso, in northern Norway, according to NRK.

The Taurus had repeatedly delayed a planned departure, a local pilot service told the Norwegian broadcaster.

However, as the submarine USS South Dakota was towed into the Norwegian harbor, the Russian vessel suddenly left port and sailed in the path of the submarine, the news report alleged.

In addition, the investigation claims the Taurus has had "unusual" movements coinciding with the surfacing of US submarines and a NATO exercises.

NRK contacted Russian ambassador in Norway Tejmuraz Ramisjivili*, who denied that the Taurus was involved in monitoring any NATO assets, and called the claims part of a wave of "Russophobia."

A Norebo representative told IntraFish he had nothing to add to the denial given in the NRK report.

Other vessels were also linked to the alleged surveillance program in the report. In November 2022, police in Kirkenes, Norway, found two vessels -- the Ester and Lira -- with identical, dated radio devices locked below decks.

On the Russian flagged fishing vessel "Ester" Norwegian police discovered an almost identical radio to the one they found earlier on board "Lira". Photo: Finnmark Police

The Russian fishing vessels had sailed straight from the Faroe Islands to the port bordering Russia's Kola Peninsula in the north, according to the Nordic broadcasters' investigation.

The Kola Peninsula is the crux of Russia’s military establishment in the western Arctic and the home of Russia's powerful Northern Fleet, the largest of the four Russian naval fleets.

A retired British officer from Naval Intelligence looked at the images of the radio for the broadcasters, and identified it as being used to send and receive calls and Morse code, according to NRK.

Potential sabotage

The head of the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) in Finnmark, Johan Roaldsnes, said these findings have strengthened suspicions that espionage is being carried out from ordinary fishing vessels.

In February, Dutch intelligence warned about the potential disruption or sabotage of marine infrastructure, as a Russian ship had been detected near a wind farm in the North Sea.

While reconnaissance of sensitive sites is not unusual, the intention might be to damage communication or power systems in case of conflict escalation.

The NRK report suggests vessels conducting this type of surveillance could be linked to an incident where an underwater data cable was cut south of Svalbard last year.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Tejmuraz Ramisjivili as a spokesperson for Norebo. Ramisjivili is the Russian ambassador in Norway.

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