Charges Against Cruise Ship Crewmembers in Polar Bear Shooting Dropped

polar bear
File image courtesy A. Weith / CC SA 4.0

Published Sep 8, 2020 9:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

Norwegian prosecutors have dropped the case against two cruise ship crewmembers who shot and killed a polar bear on the island of Phippsøya, Svalbard in 2018. Charges against their employer, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, have also been dropped.

On July 28, 2018, a 14-member party from the cruise ship Bremen - including four polar bear guards, an expedition leader, a photographer and other crewmembers - went ashore at Phippsøya via zodiac. The polar bear guards went ashore first.

Shortly after disembarking, the first two guards were sent out to check for bears on the other side of a rise. The area was visible and appeared clear, but a polar bear was present and hidden from the boat and the beach. The bear attacked one guard, who sustained head injuries. The other guards made an effort to scare the bear off, but it did not react or halt the attack. Two guards then fired three shots, killing the bear. 

"The case was documented with photos from the photographer who was involved, and the prosecution thus got a good overview of the incident," said Svalbard's assistant governor, Sølvi Elvedahl, in a statement. 

Killing a polar bear is a crime under the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, and prosecutors opened a case against the two guards who fired shots, as well as their employer. The investigation included an inquiry into the company's procedures for evaluating risk and handing polar bear protection. Last week, all charges were dropped because the shots were fired to save a life. 

"The cases against the polar bear guards who shot and killed the polar bear have been dropped due to emergency law. This means that the act is punishable, but is considered legal because it was taken to save the life of the man who was attacked by the bear," said Elvedahl. "In the case of the company, the public prosecutor has also not found that the conditions for punishment are present."

Though they rarely result in fatalities, polar bear attacks are an occasional problem in Svalbard, and all personnel traveling outside of the main city of Longyearbyen are advised to carry firearms for self defense. Last month, a Dutch national was attacked and killed by a bear at a campsite outside of the city - the sixth fatal attack in Svalbard in fifty years. The bear was later shot and killed. 

Experts caution that the opportunity for polar bear-human interaction is on the rise, as polar bears' iceborne hunting grounds are shrinking and the number of visitors to Svalbard is on the rise.