Seventeen fishermen were missing and feared dead on Monday after a Russian trawler capsized during a storm and sank in the icy waters of the Barents Sea.
Officials said two people had been rescued by a passing ship, but hopes quickly faded that more survivors could be found during a snowstorm over the Arctic waters.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “deep condolences” to the families of the victims and offered “words of support” to the survivors.
“It is with sadness that I learned of the tragedy,” Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.
During a government meeting earlier in the day, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin instructed officials to provide the necessary assistance to relatives of the victims.
“A tragedy occurred today in the Barents Sea,” Mishustin said. “People died,” he added without giving further details.
Officials said a rescue operation was underway but that bad weather conditions had complicated the task.
“It is a heavy snowstorm, the waves are up to four meters high and temperatures are around 20-25 degrees Celsius below zero,” Alexei Barinov, spokesman for the Ministry of Emergency Services in the northwestern region of Murmansk, told AFP.
“We hope for a New Year’s miracle,” he added.
However, a source familiar with the details of the search told AFP that there was little hope of finding survivors.
“A person can not hold for more than 15 minutes under these conditions,” the source said.
The privately owned boat sank near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Barents Sea at 6:20 (0330 GMT), said Ruslan Nazarov, head of the Murmansk Ministry of Crisis.
Ten minutes later, a passing ship rescued two fishermen, Nazarov told reporters.
Officials believe that the Russian-flagged ship, which had been in operation since 1979, collapsed after ice build-up caused it to capsize.
The disaster occurred when the crew pulled out a net with the catch, said the spokesman for the sea and river transport agency Rosmorrechflot, Alexei Kravchenko.
“The ship lost its balance and capsized immediately,” he told AFP.
Three ships and a sea patrol plane Il-38 were sent to the scene, officials said.
Kravchenko said not a single body had been found so far, despite the fact that the two survivors had seen a crew member die in front of them.
Marine accidents are quite common in Russia.
In April 2015, a Russian trawler sank in the Okhotsk Sea off Kamchatka. Of the 132 people aboard the Dalniy Vostok, only 63 were rescued.
In December 2011, a drilling rig capsized and sank off the island of Sakhalin during a storm. More than 50 people were killed or disappeared.