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In August, Russian military harassed US fishing boats in US econ zone off Alaska

Russian missile cruiser Varyag, of Russia's Pacific Fleet. (Russian Ministry of Defense photo/Released)
November 16, 2020

Numerous U.S. fishing boats were operating inside exclusive U.S. fishing territory off the coast of Alaska on Aug. 26, when they started receiving transmissions from Russian warships and warplanes, telling them to leave the area.

Alaska Public Media reported on the incident in August, as U.S. vessels said they were being ordered away from Russian warships even inside the U.S. exclusive economic zone, an area where the U.S. retains exclusive fishing rights, but their vessels from other nations can still operate. According to the New York Times, The Russian vessels were operating as part of a military exercise known as Ocean Shield, which involved some 50 warships and 40 aircraft operating throughout the Bering Sea, off the Alaskan coast.

The New York Times has since reported on the personal accounts of a number of different U.S. fishing boat operators who received commands from Russian military, including one fishing boat operator who wondered “are we being invaded?”

Tim Thomas, the U.S. captain on the fishing vessel Northern Jaeger, told the New York Times he was operating more than 20 nautical miles (23 miles) inside the U.S. economic zone when a Russian plane directed him to take his boat out of the area. Thomas told the New York Times he responded that he was within the U.S. zone and that the Russians lacked the authority to tell him to leave. At that point, Thomas said a Russian warship joined in, backing the orders for him to leave.

“At this point, I’m going, ‘What’s going on here? Are we getting invaded?’” Thomas said.

Thomas said he contacted the U.S. Coast Guard but they seemed unaware of the Russian operations at the time and advised Thomas that he was responsible for the safety of his crew. Thomas said he was reluctant to leave while his boat was having some of the best fishing of the season, but he was ordered to leave the area for nine days.

U.S. territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the nation’s shores, but U.S. vessels do operate further out at sea, in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, a territory stretching as much as 200 miles offshore in some places. Alaska is just 55 miles from Russia at the Bering Sea’s narrowest point.

The New York Times reported Russia’s Ocean Shield operation was one touted by Russian military leaders as an effort to prepare Russian forces to secure economic development in the Arctic region. U.S. officials have acknowledged Russia has a right to transit the waters in the U.S. exclusive zone.

Still, the Russian military operations appeared to surprise some U.S. officials. Rear Adm. Matthew T. Bell Jr., the commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees Alaska, told the New York Times it wasn’t a surprise that Russian forces were operating in the Bering Sea over the summer, but “the surprise was how aggressive they got on our side of the maritime boundary line.”

Kip Wadlow, a Juneau-based Coast Guard spokesman told Alaska Public Media that the Coast Guard was notified of the encounters the day of, checked with Alaska Command at Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and learned that the Russian military assets were doing “pre-scheduled military operations.”

On Aug. 27, Russia’s Ministry of Defense tweeted, “The Varyag missile cruiser and the Omsk nuclear-powered submarine conducted joint missile firing at sea targets in the Bering Sea as part of the tactical exercises of the Pacific Fleet.”

U.S. fishing boats scattered across 100 miles of open sea said they received similar warnings from Russian planes and warships.

The crew of the Bristol Leader, a ship that operated in the area, told the New York Times they received warnings in a mix of Russian and broken English, with a voice telling them missiles were being fired and that a submarine was nearby.

Like Thomas, Capt. David Anderson, of the ship Blue North, said he also reached out to the Coast Guard for guidance.

“It was frightening, to say the least,” Anderson told the New York Times. “The Coast Guard’s response was: Just do what they say.”

Capt. Steve Elliott, who operates the trawler Vesteraalen said three Russian warships came sailing past, issuing their own dispersal orders.

Russia’s Ocean Shield naval exercise comes as Russia has also stepped up flights near Alaska in 2020. The New York Times reported U.S. aircraft on 14 occasions have intercepted Russian aircraft flying near Alaska in 2020 alone — on pace to set a record since the Cold War era.

The Russians have reportedly refurbished and restored dozens of military posts in the Arctic region, including on Wrangel Island, about 300 miles from Alaska’s coast. The Russians have reportedly laid plans to control key navigation routes through the Bering Straits that separate Russia and Alaska.