OVER THE BERING SEA (AP) -- We fly for hours over icy, lonely waters. And then, a crowd -- dozens of huge fishing boats, some more than 300 feet long, from Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Poland.
They school up along the invisible boundary line separating Russia and Alaska but only on the Russian side. The boats tow their yawning trawl nets as close to the boundary as possible, trying to catch pollock, a valuable bottom fish, migrating into Russian waters.
Sometimes, they get too close.
That explains why some of the lumbering trawlers make like runabouts, plowing up sea spray in radical turns toward Russia, when a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules search plane comes buzzing down the line. The plane is looking for poachers in American waters, and nobody wants to get nailed.
This has been the game out here for years. Every summer and fall, an international armada builds on the Russian side of the boundary. To gain an edge, some boats risk illegal fishing forays into U.S. waters. A single, good tow of the net can bring up 100 tons of fish worth $20,000 or more.
Coast Guard crews in planes, helicopters and cutters brave mean weather and staggering distances to try to catch cheaters.
The result: Eight vessels have been seized by U.S. and Russian authorities in the last two years, yielding U.S. fines of almost $1.6 million. The fleet now seems to have less stomach for poaching. Incursions have dropped more than 90 percent, from 83 cases in 1999 to only seven so far this year.
U.S. fishermen, with a $1 billion industry to protect in Alaska waters, are happy to see invaders repelled.
The boundary line, which has been in dispute since tsarist Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, basically slices the Bering Sea in two. Each country claims an exclusive economic zone out to 200 miles. In some places, the Bering Sea is wider than 400 miles, in others the national waters overlap. Some spots offer good fishing, some poor.
Russian fishery experts, bemoaning what they say were diplomatic lapses by former Soviet leaders, generally believe the line as last negotiated in 1990 shaves off too much Russian water in favor of the Americans. That costs Russian fishermen billions of pounds of fish worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they say. They demand compensation before a fisheries war breaks out.
U.S. officials are reluctant.
''In our minds, a deal is a deal,'' says Bill Hines, Alaska region international coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
For now, the Coast Guard and its counterpart, the Russian Federal Border Service, see eye to eye on enforcing the line as currently drawn while negotiations continue. They're busting boats together.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark Russell, who has made some 200 patrol flights along the line, including a mission in early September, says he really wants to catch violators. But he has compassion. If fish are swimming into Russian waters, the foreign boats understandably want to be first on the line to catch them.
''Those guys are just trying to make a buck is what it boils down to,'' he says. ''They make more bucks by crossing the line.''
The patrol flights launch out of the sprawling Coast Guard station on Kodiak Island. It's three hours and 800 miles to reach the line.
Russell, 42, is the aircraft commander, a burly Oregon native who keeps the seven-member crew's headsets filled with playful patter, hardly ever issuing what sounds like an order.
Russell sits in the copilot's seat. At the stick is Lt. Stefanie Lincoln, 29, who has been in Kodiak only a couple of months, having finished a tour in Sacramento, Calif., flying mostly drug interdiction. She hears a lot of gentle tips from Russell on Alaska flying conditions and negotiating Kodiak's foggy, mountain-rimmed runway.
Lincoln will loop far north, by St. Lawrence Island, and run the line north to south.
The Coast Guard cutter Midgett is working the boundary too with ''Little Brother,'' a helicopter launched from the deck. If those aboard the C-130 or the helicopter see a violator, the sleek cutter might have to chase. That's what happened in late August, when the 345-foot trawler Kapitan Maslovets, spotted fishing about 1,000 yards over the line, hauled in its net and bolted west, where Russian authorities seized it.
The boats bunch up most densely at a point where the edge of the continental shelf intersects the boundary line. The young pollock, born in the Alaska zone, tend to track the ledge in their migration to feed in Russian waters.
''That's why they're sitting on the outside of the fence. They are picking off our fish as they swim by,'' says Loh-Lee Low, a U.S. bottom-fish scientist.
The crowd on the Russian side is in weird contrast to the scene on the Alaska side -- nothing but open sea. American boats usually don't need to sail into these remote waters; the fishing is much better deeper in the U.S. zone.
The boats range from gray Russian rust buckets to immaculate Chinese ships with gleaming black and red hulls.
There's target No. 22, the Orchid, a 310-foot South Korean factory trawler. The vessel, with a crew of 90, was seized here by the Coast Guard and the Russian Federal Border Service about this time last year for fishing 600 yards over the line. It was released from Dutch Harbor after the owners paid a $750,000 fine.
And here she is again, towing the line, though safe by a slim margin this day.
Russell gives the order to head home. The radar shows no more targets down the line, and 70 boats are in the ledger book, all of them on the honest side of the line. The information will be shared with Coast Guard headquarters in Juneau and Russian authorities.
''The Coast Guard has been phenomenal,'' says Trevor McCabe, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, the Anchorage-based trade arm for the 19-vessel U.S. pollock factory fleet. ''It's a massive border, and they've got limited assets.''
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