Russia fishing enforcer defends country's record

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Commercial fishing in the Russian Far East is not as lawless and poacher-plagued as some have portrayed it, according to a commander with Russia's coast guard.

Capt. Igor Rypalov, a top commander for the Russian Federal Border Service in the Far East city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, said authorities there have a good fleet of patrol ships and planes, an elaborate system of setting catch limits, and rules requiring all fishing ships to make daily reports and carry transmitters so authorities can track their positions.

''Every month at sea, we have up to eight ships and patrol boats, and they cover all of the fishing areas,'' Rypalov said. ''We have no problems with fuel. We receive our salaries on time. We plan on getting new patrol boats with good speed and modern equipment.''

Rypalov headed a delegation of Russian border guards who flew aboard a Russian jet into Elmendorf Air Force Base last week. In an unprecedented event, Rypalov outlined Russian enforcement at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal panel that regulates commercial fishing off Alaska.

The U.S. fishing industry watches commercial harvests on the Russian side of the Bering Sea with keen interest. The industry worries about foreign poachers who sometimes cross into American waters to net pollock and other fish. American fisherman also assert that Russia might allow its own ships as well as those from China, Japan, Poland and other countries to overfish Alaska pollock migrating through Russian waters.

Rypalov captivated the council audience with video showing a Russian patrol plane strafing and ultimately sinking a suspected illegal fishing ship in the Kuril Islands north of Japan a year ago. Rypalov said that's the kind of enforcement action his troops are prepared to take against poachers who flee from authorities in the western Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, which has the port city of Magadan.

In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Rypalov did not deny that corruption might exist in Russia's system of selling fishing quotas, but he doubted it is any more extensive that in other places in the world.

''As far as I'm aware, all quotas are distributed through official channels,'' he said. ''If it's a foreign vessel owner, they pay the appropriate fees. Our domestic fishermen also pay for their quotas.''

Some observers contend that Russian fisheries are plagued with outlaws. In December the environmental group World Wildlife Fund, based in Washington, D.C., released a report saying organized crime groups poach fish worth as much as $4 billion annually from the western Bering Sea, jeopardizing fish stocks including Alaska pollock, the top commercially harvested fish species by weight in the United States.

The report's authors said the main problem they found was in underreporting of catches. As an example, they said Russian fishermen recorded $113 million in seafood exports from the Kamchatka region to Japan in 1997, yet Japan recorded imports from Kamchatka of $442 million.

U.S. Coast Guard officers in Alaska have made a special effort to reach out to their counterparts in the Russian border guard, hoping to build esprit de corps in catching fish poachers. It has worked well, with the two sides collaborating in the last three years in seizing several ships, fining owners millions of dollars and rubles, and in some cases prosecuting captains, said Rear Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, Coast Guard chief in Alaska.

Much of the work has focused along the line that divides the vast Bering Sea into Russian and American zones.

Rypalov said he never sees American boats crossing the Bering Sea line to poach in Russian waters. Rather, foreign fleets build along the Russian side of the line to fish as close as possible to healthier U.S. fish stocks.

Coast Guard Capt. Vince O'Shea, who as Rypalov's counterpart manages the cutters and planes that enforce fisheries laws, said he's sure Rypalov's guards take genuine action against poachers they spot themselves or hear about from the Coast Guard.

''The guys he punishes, I don't see them again,'' O'Shea said.

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