Coast Guard: Foreigners not respecting maritime boundary

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Each summer a large number of foreign trawlers can be seen lined up along the maritime boundary separating Alaska and Russia in the Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard says as many as 170 foreign trawlers have been seen towing their nets along the line. That's nine times the number of factory trawlers licensed to catch pollock on the U.S. side.

And the Coast Guard and fishing industry representatives say too often the foreign vessels don't stay on the Russian side. They're hoping a crackdown last year on foreign raiders will deter violators come the new season in May.

Trevor McCabe, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, said the foreign vessels are desperate for fish.

''We have a healthy resource, and they don't,'' he said.

Foreign vessels usually fish the line most heavily from May to December, and vessels come not only from Russia but from China, South Korea, Poland and Japan, said Coast Guard Capt. Vince O'Shea.

''The Russians sell quota to foreigners,'' he said. ''It's an important source of hard cash for the Russian government.''

Last year the Coast Guard often working cooperatively with its Russian counterpart, boarded several foreign vessels for violating the boundary line. The result was millions of dollars in actual or pending civil penalties and hope for Alaska's fishing industry that a U.S. pollock base generating an estimated $700 million annually won't be plundered.

Six vessels were seized in 2000, compared with none in 1999, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard flies a 120-mile stretch of the boundary line with C-130 aircraft and patrols with cutters. Though seizures were up last year, the number of trawlers seen violating the boundary was down to 26, compared with 90 in 1999, O'Shea said.

The Russian parliament still has not officially ratified a 1990 agreement with the U.S. clarifying the exact location of the boundary line, though Russian fleets generally abide by it as talks between the United States and Russia continue. The Russians feel they got a bad deal on the line and want permission to catch some fish on the U.S. side as compensation.

''We've got one of the last great, healthy fisheries on earth, and unless we're very aggressive in the way we protect it, we're going to lose it,'' said U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy.

In 1999, eighteen Russian boats surrounded the 378-foot Coast Guard cutter Hamilton to prevent it from seizing the Russian trawler Gissar for illegal fishing.

That incident happened only a month after Rear Adm. Tom Barrett took command of the Coast Guard in Alaska. Since then, Barrett has reached out to the Russian authorities. In March, a group of Russian legal authorities will visit Alaska to talk with the U.S. attorney, who prosecutes the illegal fishing cases, O'Shea said.

It's all part of a strategy, he said.

''When the enforcement guys are cooperating, there's no place for violators to hide,'' O'Shea said.

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