HENNINGSVAER -- The pristine Lofoten Islands off Norway's far north paint an idyllic image of tranquility, but beneath the surface is a roiling debate over the islands' resources, dividing fishermen, environmentalists and oil companies.
Oilmen spurred by the meteoric rise in oil prices have for some time been eyeing the picturesque archipelago, where high mountains plunge down into the sea.
Norway is currently the world's fifth-biggest oil exporter, but it has seen its production of black gold decline since peaking in 2001. And there have been no major discoveries in recent years to provide a glimmer of hope once its aging, dwindling wells dry up.
"Production from the fields currently producing on the Norwegian continental shelf will be reduced by 50 percent by 2023," says Oerjan Birkeland, exploration manager for StatoilHydro in the far north.
"The region off Lofoten is of interest because we think there is a potential for oil and gas," he adds.
And that is exactly what environmentalists and fishermen do not want to hear.
These waters are home to the world's biggest remaining cod stocks, a species that has been a victim of overfishing in both Europe and North America, as well as the biggest herring stocks.
Fishing is the Lofoten Islands' main commercial activity. The coastline attests to this, dotted with quaint fishing cabins on stilts, some of which have now been converted into shelters for tourists -- another important industry for the islands' 25,000 residents.
Each spring, a thousand-year-old tradition is continued: the cod is placed outdoors to dry on huge wooden structure, before being exported to southern Europe for another time-honoured tradition, the classic dish bacalao.
"For some islands, if there was no fishing you would have to leave," says Hermod Larsen, the local head of the Raafisklag, the organization that sells the fish.
"We have to live together (with the oil companies), but not in Lofoten," he insists.
The government, under pressure from environmentalists and itself torn on the issue, has prohibited all oil activities in the unspoiled area until at least 2010, when the issue will be reviewed.
With that deadline now just over a year away, StatoilHydro -- a company 63-percent owned by the state and which brings in a bundle to state coffers -- has launched a major charm offensive emphasizing its environmental efforts.
Maren Esmark of the Norwegian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) brands the lobbying campaign as "disgusting".
"If you were to have an oil spill around Lofoten in the winter time, which is when accidents are more likely to happen, it would be very difficult to clean it up because (at that time of the year up) there you have only four hours of daylight," she says.
StatoilHydro says however it would be well-prepared.
Before any drilling takes place, "we carry out about 3,000 simulations of an oil spill and we determine an oil spill contingency plan based on the worst case scenario," Birkeland says.
Locals have also expressed concern about the effect the sight of massive drilling platforms near the coast would have on tourists.
"You would need new infrastructures, maritime traffic would increase, and there would be more noise and risk of pollution," warns Heike Vester, a German biologist who organizes ocean safaris from the town of Henningsvaer.
"And you won't just get platforms, you also need a harbor for big tankers," she notes.
A poll quoted by WWF suggested that 66.2 percent of inhabitants in northern Norway were opposed to oil activities near the archipelago.
The government has nonetheless allowed seismic studies to be conducted off the Lofoten Islands in order to detect any possible existence of oil or gas.
But, laments Esmark, "if you first find oil, it is then much harder to impose a moratorium."
Meanwhile, fishermen complain that the powerful seismic pressure has already scared away the fish, with one of them evoking "bombings similar to Vietnam".