Months after Russian naval incident, security concerns remain
When Russian navy ships took U.S. fishing vessels by surprise during military exercises in late August, Alaskan fishermen lost millions of dollars in potential revenue and feared for their lives. Ever since, the U.S. fishing fleet, Coast Guard and Alaska Command have been in serious conversations about how to improve communication and security before another disaster strikes.
Details about the confrontations that sparked security concerns continue to emerge.
On Tuesday, August 25, a catcher-processor vessel operating near the Western edge of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spotted a Russian nuclear submarine surfacing within 2.5 nautical miles, followed by a warship, neither of which attempted any contact.
The next day, a different catcher-processor was repeatedly buzzed by a Russian warplane and ordered to leave the area in broken English. Nearby, two freezer longliners were also buzzed by aircraft and were told they were in imminent danger in a live missile fire zone.
In another area, eight commercial fishing ships were approached by three Russian warships and told to change course. When one fishing ship refused, it was charged by a Russian warship, which came within half a nautical mile before the fishing ship cut loose its gear and changed course.
U.S. ships were ordered to leave fishing gear in the water and flee from prosperous fishing grounds, and it took some vessels days to return and resume operations. Between the cost of the lost gear and lost fishing time, the incident cost the industry millions of dollars.
Throughout these exchanges, members of the U.S. fishing fleet were reaching out to the Coast Guard to figure out what exactly was going on, but their contacts at the Coast Guard were just as unsure. The best advice they could offer was that while the U.S. ships were legally allowed to hold their course and continue fishing, it was up to the captains to decide what was best for their own crew.
Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, said it was an extremely stressful time. “When one of my skippers called the Coast Guard, the person that answered didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “And then we contacted the Department of State back in D.C. the next day and it took them a little while to figure out what was going on.”
It turned out that the Russian navy was simulating a missile operation on Bering Sea targets as part of Operation Ocean Shield, an annual naval exercise involving operations all around the Russian Federation. The operations were legally held in international waters, but some of those waters lay within the fishing grounds of the U.S. fishing fleet, extending to 200 nautical miles off the U.S. coast.
The Russian navy had communicated its intent to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which issued a HYDROPAC warning, a publicly available alert detailing the location and time of the planned exercise.
Given that a similar exercise had never interfered with Bering Sea fishing operations in the past, though, neither the fishing fleet nor the Coast Guard even knew that HYDROPAC warnings were something they should monitor, so the operations took them completely by surprise.
Madsen was scheduled to testify in late September to the Subcommittee on Security of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about what the incident cost her industry and how the government should respond, but the hearing was cancelled the night before because of scheduling conflicts.
Despite that setback, she feels like progress is still being made. “I think the message has gotten out there, and we’ve gotten attention and some responses from the Coast Guard and the congressional offices and the Department of State,” she said. “So I don’t think we suffered from not having the senate hearing.”
In a statement released a few days after the incident, Senator Dan Sullivan, who chairs the subcommittee on Security, didn’t address any specific concerns surrounding the episode, but pointed out “dramatic increases in the U.S. military’s presence in Alaska,” including the authorization to build six new icebreakers, the arrival of F-25A fighter jets at Eilson Air Force Base and the Nome Deep Draft Port project. These measures were not in direct response to August’s confrontation, but were meant to protect Alaska from future aggression. “This focus on the Arctic has clearly reached the highest levels of government,” Sullivan said.
Senator Lisa Murkowski also released a statement, saying she was “concerned of reports from Alaskan fishermen that they felt threatened and forced from their fishing grounds by Russian military ships in the Bering Sea” and that she was working “to better understand the situation at hand and to establish a plan to ensure that any interactions at sea, be it a Russian Military exercise or not, are conducted lawfully, peacefully, and with due regard for the safety of those at sea.”
The Coast Guard released a brief to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in early October detailing some of the changes it intends to implement going forward. It has committed to monitor HYDROPAC messages and include relevant alerts in its Local Notice to Mariners and Broadcast Notice to Mariners, which are available online and broadcast over radio.
It also recently completed a contract with the Marine Exchange of Alaska to use their Automatic Identification System, AIS for short, to push immediate alerts to vessels at sea. In addition, the Coast Guard attaché in Moscow, State Department, and Alaska Command are exploring “an appropriate diplomatic response to the incident,” according to the report.
A Coast Guard spokesperson added that they recommend mariners stay informed by regularly checking notices, weather reports and HYDROPACs and carry multiple communication devices on board with them to receive emergency transmissions.
To Madsen, it’s progress, but not necessarily a silver bullet. She knows that fishing vessels within the U.S. EEZ don’t legally have to follow the orders of a foreign military vessel, but to a skipper facing down a nuclear submarine and getting buzzed by foreign military aircraft, it can feel like there’s no other option.
In addition to improved communication, she’d like to see physical Coast Guard ships in the water when these operations happen in the future. “We think that when the government knows these exercises are ongoing, they should dedicate resources on the ground so that there’s a Coast Guard presence there and we don’t have to get nervous about having them so far away,” she said.
Although the August incident may have been the first of its kind, it’s unlikely to be the last. The accessibility to Arctic oil and gas and the opening of Arctic shipping lanes, mostly driven by receding sea ice, has made the Arctic a region of increasing international importance and an area of increased global competition.
Madsen said she heard a similar Russian operation was planned for 2022, and the U.S. military has been expanding its presence in the region.
The U.S. Army conducted its Defender Pacific 2020 exercises in Alaska in September, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been expanding its Arctic presence as well.
“As we enter a new era of great power competition, NORAD and USNORTHCOM are becoming more involved in Alaska and across the greater Arctic,” said Lt. Gen David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and Alaska NORAD. “We are increasing our operations and capabilities in the north through exercises such as Arctic Edge, Northern Edge, and other exercises that ensure our readiness to operate in this area of responsibility.”
Amid increased militarization on all sides, locals stand to lose out, as some commercial fishermen have already learned the hard way. But Madsen and her colleagues hope that good communication and a federal commitment to industry and local residents can protect Alaskans in the new era of Arctic politics.