U.S. Coast Guard capability to safeguard national interests and promote economic security in the Arctic will be the subject of a congressional hearing on Dec. 8, one in which Alaska’s commercial fishing entities have a special concern.
“From our vantage point, on the front lines of a changing Arctic, a robust U.S. military presence to protect U.S. interests in the region is simply non-negotiable,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of At-Sea Processors. The trade association, based in Seattle, represents six member companies who own and operate 15 U.S. flag catcher/processor vessels who harvest Alaska Pollock in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Pacific whiting in Pacific Northwest coastal waters.
“Our sovereign right to legally fish within the U.S. EEZ (exclusive economic zone) must be protected,” Madsen said, in remarks prepared for the virtual hearing before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Security of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. She said the commercial fisheries industry’s concerns have been heightened by recent proclamations from the Russian Duma calling into question the legitimacy of the U.S./Russia boundary line, a cornerstone of the framework of the U.S. federal fisheries.
Madsen’s prepared testimony outlines in detail incidents this past August, in which Russian military officials conducting naval exercises in the U.S. EEZ interfered and harassed commercial fishing vessels, causing captains and crews alike concern for their safety.
On Aug. 25, Trident Seafoods’ catcher-processor Island Enterprise was fishing in the vicinity of Pervenets Canyon in the Eastern Bering Sea when with no warning a large submarine surfaced, followed by a warship traveling at 17.5 knot on direct course toward the submarine, she said.
While the warship made no contact with the Island Enterprise, it came within 2.5 nautical miles of the Trident ship, Madsen said.
“These were our first clues that a major Russian military operation was underway smack-dab in the middle of our fishing grounds,” she said. “The following day Russian military initiated a series of confrontations with U.S. flagged vessels that were, from our perspective, dangerous and completely unacceptable.”
The confrontations made captains and crews fearful for their safety and also caused some operational decisions that cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost fishing opportunities, Madsen said.
In one incident the captain of the Northern Jaeger, a catcher-processor operated by American Seafoods, was harassed by the Russian military for approximately five hours, and even with the assistance of a Russian-speaking member of his crew, the captain was unable to get a clear sense of what was happening or learn the specific course of action request of him y the Russians, Madsen said. When the vessel captain initiated conversations with the U.S. Coast Guard, none of them appeared to be aware that a major Russian military exercise was underway in the U.S. EEZ, she said.
“Russian naval exercises cannot be allowed to serve as a deterrent to the fully legitimate operations of a U.S. fishing fleet that competes directly with the Russian seafood industry in global markets for Pollock, Pacific cod and other groundfish,” Madsen said.
Madsen and other veterans of Bering Sea/Aleutian Island commercial fisheries say they want advance notice of such foreign military exercises, which are conducted under the USA/SSR Maritime Boundary Agreement concluded by two countries on June 1, 1990. They also want to see a military presence of U.S. forces in the area when the Russian exercises are happening “to let us know they have our backs,” said Brent Paine, of United Catcher Boats. In the 27 years he’s been working with the catcher vessels, this was the first time he can recall Russian boats coming into U.S. waters while they were fishing, he said.
“It’s disconcerting,” Paine said. “It is a little bit scary to know the Russians were putting a lot of energy into exercises in areas where the U.S. fleet is fishing.”
If they felt they had to do an exercise in U.S. waters, the fleet was done fishing after Nov. 1 and then it wouldn’t have been a big deal, Paine said.
“We really don’t like the Russian military telling us what we can and can’t do,” he said.
But do U.S. military troops at this time have the equipment, manpower and budget to create a military presence with the Coast Guard, Navy or Air Force during the groundfish fisheries?
“The short answer is no,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, chairman of the subcommittee on Security, who will chair the Dec. 8 hearing. “Not all of the services have what they need to survive and thrive in the Arctic environment, though some are better than others.”
What Sullivan has been pushing for are a combination of factors that would strengthen the overall capability of the U.S. military presence in the Arctic. Sullivan said these efforts have included a strategic Arctic port, Arctic strategy, increases in military exercises and more icebreakers. Locations like Nome, Port Clarence/Point Spencer and Adak are potential sites.
Sullivan has also pushed for millions of federal dollars to build new icebreakers, which he wants based in the Arctic.
“We currently have only two icebreakers and one is broken,” Sullivan said. “Russia has over 50. It’s basic math to see that we’re behind.”
In an article published in Roll Call in early October, Sullivan noted that as ice recedes in the Bering Sea that Alaskans are witnessing an increase in ships passing through the area, and that in fact maritime traffic north of the Bering Strait has jumped 128 percent since 2008.
“Some including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have predicted that this narrow stretch of sea is poised to becoming the next Suez Canal and Putin says Russia will control it,” he said,
As for the disparity over numbers of icebreakers, it is alarming, “but the federal government is finally waking up to some firm jostling from Congress,” Sullivan said.
He also noted that in September of 2019 the Navy conducted an Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise at Adak, involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps assets.
“These exercises send a number of strategic messages to both our allies and adversaries,” Sullivan said.
They demonstrate to allies that the U.S. is, in fact, an Arctic power “and that we care deeply about the Arctic remaining peaceful and prosperous. They also demonstrate to adversaries that the Navy and Marine Corps are still serious about cold-weather operations,” he said.