U.S. investigates ‘unprofessional interactions’ after Russian military confronts Bering Sea fishermen

A Russian vessel participating in military exercises on the Bering Sea steams past the pollock trawler Vesteraalen on Wednesday. (Courtesy Steve Elliott)

Steve Elliott’s trawler, the Vesteraalen, was fishing for Bering Sea pollock Wednesday afternoon when he and his crew started hearing voices speaking Russian on their ship’s radio — an unusual development, given that they were 80 miles from the U.S.-Russian maritime boundary.

Soon after, though, the voices switched to English, with a stern message to Elliott’s boat, and the dozen others all fishing within a few miles: Move.

“Three warships and two support vessels of theirs were coming and would not turn,” Elliott said in an interview over the Vesteraalen’s satellite phone. “And they came marching right through the fleet.”

Other vessels reported being buzzed by Russian aircraft and ordered out of the area on a specific heading. And the incident has now drawn the attention of both of Alaska’s U.S. senators and an investigation by three federal agencies into what they’re calling reports of “unprofessional interactions” by the Russian military.

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The altercation interrupted fishing for several boats, and some industry players say they’re worried about continuing impacts of exercises that, according to a federal notice, could run into September. This year’s summer pollock season has already been challenging, with slower fishing and added precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and vessels only have until Nov. 1 to catch their limit.

A map of the close encounter between American fishing boats and Russian military vessels on the Bering Sea on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media

“We were caught by surprise,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade group of 13 large vessels that catch Bering Sea pollock and process it in onboard factories. “It caused a disruption in our fishing operations for at least the 24- to 36-hour period where we were trying to get the facts about what was happening. And then it’s unclear what impacts could continue through the time that the Russians have given us notice the exercises will be underway.”

Elliott said that in three decades of fishing, he’s never seen anything like what he experienced Wednesday. But experts say this is unlikely to be the last encounter between Russian and American vessels in the Bering Sea, as the warming Arctic becomes an area of increasing military and economic focus for global powers.

“Welcome to the future,” said Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see more of this type of exercising and significant military presence in the Arctic — we just haven’t seen it for a long time.”

The pollock trawlers were operating within the U.S. “exclusive economic zone” — an area that reserves fishing rights for American boats but doesn’t block international vessels from entering or operating, said Kip Wadlow, a Juneau-based U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.

While the Coast Guard called the exercises “pre-planned” and said that a notice about them was published earlier this month, fishing industry representatives argued that it was useless to them, because it was issued through a system they don’t regularly monitor.

In interviews, Bering Sea fishermen and executives described a chaotic and unsettling run-in with the military assets, which the Russian government now describes as part of “massive drills” happening for the first time ever in the region, with missiles, submarines and dozens of warships and planes.

The Blue North, which was fishing for cod to the northeast of the trawl fleet, was buzzed six times by a Russian aircraft that, by radio, ordered the ship out of the area on a specific course at “maximum speed,” according to Mike Fitzgerald, a crew member.

“I won’t say we were fearful, because we’re Bering Sea fishermen. But this goes beyond anything when you really know what happened,” Fitzgerald said. “We had Russian military aircraft threatening us: ‘Danger area. Missile area. Proceed out of here.’ That’s unheard of, and it’s really wrong that we haven’t gotten more protection out here.”

Fitzgerald also provided a photo, sent by another fishing vessel, that appeared to show what fishermen thought was a Russian submarine surfaced close to the shore of St. Matthew Island, which is part of the United States. But one defense analyst on Twitter, H.I. Sutton, said the photo actually showed a U.S. naval submarine, not a Russian one.

Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a prepared statement that the exercises are a “stark reminder of why we need a strong U.S. military presence in the Arctic.”

This photo shows a submarine surfaced not far from the shore of U.S.-owned St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea. Fishermen thought the submarine was Russian, but defense analysts say it’s a U.S. naval vessel. (Courtesy Mike Fitzgerald)

“In recent months, Russian provocation has only increased. Our commercial fishing fleet encountered a frightening situation, with huge safety implications,” the statement quoted Sullivan as saying. “Clearly, there was a communications breakdown among our military agencies, and we are working to get to the bottom of it — so that this type of incident, which caught our fishermen off guard, does not happen again.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski also released a statement saying she’d been briefed by Coast Guard and NORAD officials in an effort to understand what happened, and to ensure that maritime interactions are conducted “lawfully, peacefully and with due regard for the safety of those at sea.”

On Thursday, military officials said only that they were monitoring the situation, and that the Russian military exercises were taking place in international waters “well outside the U.S. territorial sea.”

But on Friday, the Trump administration released a sharper statement, saying that the three federal agencies are investigating reports of “unprofessional interactions by Russian military forces with U.S. fishing vessels in the Bering Sea.”

“Initial indications are that these interactions stem from a Russian naval exercise,” said Larry Pixa, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, which is working with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Crew members on the fishing vessel Commodore empty a trawl net of pollock during a trip on the Bering Sea last year. (Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Experts say that the incident comes as the U.S. — not just Russia — has also become more assertive in the Arctic. Conley said there’s been increasing American naval and air activity in the Barents Sea, near Norway, and that the two nations are “signaling to one another” about the strategic and military importance of the Arctic.

The fishing boats’ experience in the Bering Sea highlights the need for enhanced systems of communication as the Arctic becomes more crowded, and it should serve as a learning experience, said Mike Sfraga, director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and a former vice chancellor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Russian military wasn’t operating outside “international norms” in conducting its Bering Sea drills, and neither were the American fishermen, Sfraga said. But though it appears that certain parts of the U.S. government were made aware of the exercises in advance, that message didn’t get passed along to the pollock fleet, he added.

“This is what most of us worry about,” he said. “It seems to beckon for a higher, government-to-government level discussion about how we engage in the future, because this will not be the last time.”

National Public Radio diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

This story has been updated to add detail about the photo of the submarine that reportedly surfaced near St. Matthew Island.