Fish Patrol Guards Frigid Frontier
May. 01, 1999
ON PATROL ON THE BERING SEA (AP) _ Nothing marks the boundary that runs down the middle of this vast, frigid waterworld.
Yet dozens of fishing boats cluster around it. Coast Guard cutters prowl along it. Surveillance jets and helicopters swoop over it. And, sometimes, shots are fired when poachers pay no attention to it.
The Russian-U.S. maritime line slices across the Bering Sea, the richest fishing grounds left in an overfished world and the latest front in the global free-for-all for control of humanity's watery commons.
It's where the Storis, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, is on patrol this evening, pitching over watery hills in a nonstop hunt for foreign trawlers that sneak into American waters to fish.
Lt. Christina Dutton, into her 16th hour on duty, balances herself on the slanting bridge in the green glow of a radar screen, her red-rimmed eyes checking and rechecking the blips and dots and lines that will alert her to an intruder.
``On the line, you can't let your guard down,'' she says, then turns back to the navigation charts, the dials, the computer monitors.
Out here, the line means everything to everyone except the prize: the pollock swimming 60 stories below the surface. In the darkness of the deep, they glide in silvery clouds, millions upon millions of them.
Once deemed fit solely for animal feed, pollock is perennially the second or third most consumed seafood in America. The fish appear in fast-food restaurants as fillets, on dinner tables as fish cakes and artificial crab and lobster salads. They are ground into a powdery flour for breads and pastries. In Japan, they're minced into paste for a multitude of foods known as ``kamaboko.'' Pollock roe, the fish egg sacs inside female pollock, fetch high prices in Asia, where they are delicacies.
These fish, the backbone of Alaska's fishing industry, represent about half of the 4 billion pounds of seafood swept from Alaskan waters each year _ a $1 billion business in a good year.
Naturally, everyone wants a piece of the pollock.
On the Russian side, dozens of trawlers from Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Poland and Norway work unchecked, having paid the cash-starved Russian government for fishing permits.
These floating factories hum 24 hours a day, scooping up catches so large that managers measure them in hundreds of tons, with nets so enormous that each could hold a dozen jumbo jets.
With each passing year, the catch dwindles, and the vessels creep closer and closer to the line in the sea.
On the American side, the U.S. Coast Guard watches and waits.
Day and night, helicopters, C-130 planes and four cutters patrol a line as long as the road from Boston to Miami. Mission: To keep out hit-and-run trawlers that have already depleted the waters on the Russian side.
These men and women also work 24 hours a day, repairing engines and mopping galleys and running fire drills. And always _ always _ they must scan for rogue trawlers that sit on the line, waiting for their chance to pilfer a ton or two of fish.
There's no glory in being a fish cop. There are 20-hour shifts, monotonous tasks, mess-hall leftovers, cramped quarters, bad weather.
Squalls erupt in minutes, sometimes three or four in an afternoon. Blizzards dissolve horizons. Gale-force winds whip up swells as high as five-story buildings. Cold snaps freeze waves in mid-curl. Even a summer sun can hide in an instant behind freezing fog, sleet.
And there's the isolation that, as Ricky Dickerson of Booneville, Miss., has learned after a month away from land, chips away at the nerves.
On this day, the 18-year-old ``boot'' _ a word that means rookie _ is halfway through a four-hour watch on the flying bridge of the Storis, the Coast Guard's oldest active cutter, built in 1942.
Dickerson is fighting the roll, a wind chill of 10 below zero, the flesh-freezing spray, the thought that his sweetheart may not wait for him to finish his tour. There's nothing but a desert of water in his binoculars and wind that roars like a prehistoric animal in his ears.
Dickerson's lips crack as he grins. ``If you're looking for the end of the world,'' he says, ``you found it.''
During a surveillance flight last May off the southwestern tip of the Aleutian Islands, a C-130 crew spotted trouble: Five foreign trawlers on the wrong side of the maritime line were catching salmon with 10-mile-long drift nets _ a violation of a U.N. ban on drift-net fishing.
While three Coast Guard cutters steamed to the scene, the trawlers cut their nets loose and scattered.
One of the poachers got away. But the cutter Boutwell intercepted a Russian trawler, handed over custody to Russian authorities, then stopped a Chinese ship after a 1,200-mile, four-day chase through a typhoon. The cutter Jarvis caught up to the fourth poacher, a Chinese ship, near Japan a week later.
Meanwhile, the cutter Polar Sea was tracking the last trawler deep into Russian territory. For three days the Chinese vessel zigzagged in heavy fog and rain. Then a Russian patrol boat appeared.
Moments after the Polar Sea turned to head back to Alaska, the Russian boat opened fire on the fishing vessel. The trawler's skipper and a navigator were killed. Three other fishermen were wounded.
``This is not just an ocean _ it's a battlefield,'' says Lt. Eric Vogelbacher, a 30-year-old helicopter pilot from Long Beach, Calif., who took part in the mission.
It's also a complex, largely hidden web of life.
Inhabited by whales the size of ships and diatoms as small as a single cell, the Bering Sea pulses with at least 525 species of fish, shellfish, marine mammals and sea birds. This 800,000-square-mile wilderness supports the world's most extensive eelgrass bed, the world's largest salmon grounds. It produces more than half of the nation's seafood.
And it is showing signs of stress.
The Bering Sea's fur seal population is declining. Several species of crab and sea birds, including the red-legged kittiwakes, are dwindling. The Steller sea lion, the mammal at the top of the Bering Sea's life chain, is endangered. Pollock, the sea's most abundant fish, has shrunk to half its 1985 population. And trawler nets that sweep ocean floors in pursuit of bottomfish like pollock often act like wrecking balls, disrupting plankton, plants and a myriad of microorganisms that whales need to survive.
Climatic shifts or sudden changes in currents may play a role, but a growing number of scientists say the Bering Sea is overfished.
In February, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal body largely comprised of industry representatives, issued an emergency order banning pollock fishing around the Aleutian Islands, where the fish spawn. It also reduced, at least temporarily, the catch limit by more than 10 percent _ which will cost the Alaskan fishing industry $50 million in 1999.
Of course, quotas and controls drawn up in conference halls in Anchorage don't mean much 1,000 miles west, where roughly 70 trawlers are roaming the Russian side of that invisible boundary, waiting for the Coast Guard's resolve to crack.
Pat Daniels is hunched over a radar screen, studying bunches of green dots. That is the way the 100-ton trawlers appear on the console of a four-engine C-130 cruising 2,500 feet above the Bering Sea.
Most of the ships appear to be working on the Russian side of the sea boundary. Six are close to the line, and one is right on it.
The navigator frowns. ``Got one, boys _ right on the yellow brick road.''
Daniels and six other Coast Guard airmen are collecting evidence of foreign vessels poaching in American waters. Every day, planes like this one do a 90-minute sweep up the line.
``She's heading U.S.?'' asks the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Rocky Lee.
``Looking like it.''
Lee and his co-pilot, Lt. Dan Rocco, nose the transport into a dive. Tim Sheffler, the radioman, punches the ship's coordinates into a laptop computer and hails the Sherman, a Coast Guard cutter that is a few miles south.
The C-130 drops to 300 feet. ``Ship has just crossed over into American waters,'' Daniels says. ``Two thousands yards to mark ... There she is!''
The jet thunders over the blue-hulled ship, the word KAYZER on its bow, Russian flags whipping from its mast. The trawler veers west, back into Russian territory.
They'll let this one go, Sheffler says. The trawler didn't have its nets in the water and, in these post-Cold War times, it's better to make friends with the country that divides the patrolling duties on the Bering Sea.
``If we'd have shown up here an hour or two later, we'd have caught 'em fishing,'' he says. ``But we did fine. It's a deterrent thing. Next time, the Kayzer will think twice about putting her hand in the cookie jar.''
In no more than 30 seconds, the skies go black. Hail the size of eggs bat-bat-batters the windscreen. Spindrift like talcum powder clings to the 133-foot-long wings.
Lee pulls the jumbo up and flicks on a de-icer, which heats the outer shell to 600 degrees. ``Without it,'' he says, ``we'd be a Popsicle in minutes and crash.''
Today's mission is over; all Lee can do is take his crew back to the Kodiak air base, four hours away.
In the churning seas below, the cutters are on their own.
Waves the color of bruises wallop the hull of the Sherman. Plumes of spray engulf the bow. There are no other boats, no planes, no birds in sight.
A month earlier, this cutter was prowling around Central America for Colombian drug runners. Today it's steaming across the Bering Sea to relieve the Storis, which has been patrolling a 175-mile stretch of the maritime line.
For the next three weeks, every crew member of the Sherman can expect to put in 18-hour days, sail 8,000 miles and feel the knuckles of at least three arctic storms.
Their ship can take a beating. Sleek, steel and 378 feet long, the Sherman can make sharp turns in angry seas. In her belly sits 100 tons of ballast to snap her upright when she keels more than 40 degrees.
And yet, the cutter is quick: It cruises at 14 knots _ and can hit dash speeds of 27 _ with two 3,500-horsepower diesel engines and twin 18,000-horsepower gas turbines.
``No one's outrunning us,'' says Capt. Robert M. Wicklund, 46, a 25-year veteran from Tenino, Wash., who's been at the Sherman's helm for two years.
It's also Wicklund's job to see that poachers don't outwit or outwait them.
He likes to approach the line in darkness and mingle with a pack of vessels, pretending to be a fishing boat. Radio is cut, engines slowed. Then the cutter zigzags like a vessel pursuing a school of fish. Sometimes the Sherman reconfigures its deck lighting to look like a trawler. Or it will wait for heavy fog or rain and go to ``Dog Zebra'' _ code for lights out. ``We like to sneak up on the buggers, then pounce,'' Wicklund says.
For a 3,070-ton vessel to pounce, all 147 men and 20 women in the crew must know their duties well enough to perform them in the dark.
It means Ryan Curry, a 19-year-old apprentice seaman from Seattle, has to be wide awake and on the flying bridge at 2 a.m. for his four-hour watch _ even after a 16-hour day of fire drills, cleanup detail and messenger duty that ended at midnight.
It means that in the bowels of the ship, where engines scream like jetliner turbines, Lt. Jeff Brown and his ``A-gang'' of auxiliary engineers must be able to crank up power at a moment's notice.
It means weapons officer Chris Randolph and his gunners must always be ready to use the 25-millimeter guns to ``persuade'' ships to heel for an inspection boarding.
``If someone breaks down, that puts lives in jeopardy,'' says Lt. Jeff Haukom, a 27-year-old operations officer from San Diego. ``On the Bering Sea, there's no room for mistakes.''
Corridors, gangways, stairwells accommodate one set of shoulders at a time. Shower stalls are stainless steel boxes, 2 feet by 2 feet wide, 7 feet high and icy to the touch. Crew members compact belongings into lockers 18 inches by 30 inches.
Sleeping is on ``racks'' _ bunks as wide and soft as closet shelves. Each comes with a roll bar (to keep people from landing in a roommate's bunk), wool blanket, a tiny light bulb to read a Tom Clancy novel by.
``Invite 150 people over to your house, shut all the doors and windows, and try to get along for three months. That's how it's like living on board,'' says Lt. Taina Fonseca, 25, an assistant weapons officer from the Island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico.
This is a place where people don't stand on deck, they lean against rolls. A place where black leather boots, belts and gloves must be polished each morning to keep from ``salting.'' Where crew members go to work with plastic bags and pills for seasickness.
On a cutter, the air smells as if someone had put lube oil in a humidifier instead of water. The iron floor and cork-covered walls throb day and night, as if a lawnmower were left running in the next room. Letters arrive four weeks late and rarely in the order written.
And yet, the morale on the Sherman remains kinetic, expectant as the ship approaches the line in the sea.
Suddenly, the water boils to starboard and a gray whale breaks the surface in a spinning, turning, bending arc. A spurt of steam shoots up, then another, and another. Vaporous breaths from a family of giants.
Jennifer Ausham, a 20-year-old seaman, rushes out onto the deck. ``Look!'' More plumes of mist. ``A momma and two babies!'' Chief Quartermaster Peter Hoking and several navigators come out from the bridge.
They stand in the icy drizzle, watching the spouts shrink in the distance.
``When you see more whales up here, like we have, that's a good feeling,'' says Hoking. ``It reminds you that, hey, maybe you're doing something right, maybe you're making a difference after all.''
Editor's Note: AP National Writer Todd Lewan sailed with the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Storis and Sherman and flew with the crew of a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft to report this story.