Russian Warships Sailed 'Right Through' Alaska Fishing Fleet: Sailors

Alaskan fishermen have recalled their brush with the Russian navy on Wednesday, when their fleet of commercial vessels came across military drills in international waters in the Bering Sea.

The ships in the fishing fleet were among those who raised the alarm to U.S. forces after bumping into Russian warships and aircraft off the coast of Alaska. Some of those aboard told Alaska Public Media Friday they had never seen anything like the Russian force.

Steve Elliott was aboard the Vesteraalen trawler on Wednesday, fishing for pollock in the Bering Sea when his crew heard Russian voices on their ship's radio. Elliott told APM that the voices soon switched from Russian to English, warning the nearby commercial ships to move out of their way.

"Three warships and two support vessels of theirs were coming and would not turn," Elliott said from aboard the Vesteraalen. "And they came marching right through the fleet."

APM said other vessels were buzzed by Russian military aircraft and also ordered to leave the area. The U.S. military said Thursday the Russian forces were taking part in military drills that were known to some American officials, and that it was tracking all nearby Russian activity.

But fishing vessels say the incident disrupted their fishing and put them in danger. "We were caught by surprise," said Stephanie Madsen, the executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association—a trade group of 13 ships that fish and process Bering Sea pollock.

"It caused a disruption in our fishing operations for at least the 24- to 36-hour period where we were trying to get the facts about what was happening," she told APM.

"And then it's unclear what impacts could continue through the time that the Russians have given us notice the exercises will be underway." APM reported that the drills are scheduled to last into September.

Mike Fitzgerald, a crew member aboard the Blue North cod fishing ship, said his vessel was buzzed six times by a Russian aircraft and ordered out of the area on a set course "at maximum speed."

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Friday it intercepted six Russian military aircraft—three groups of two Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft. The planes flew in the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone for some five hours and approached within 50 nautical miles of the Alaskan coast, but did not enter American or Canadian airspace.

"I won't say we were fearful, because we're Bering Sea fishermen," Fitzgerald told APM. "But this goes beyond anything when you really know what happened... We had Russian military aircraft threatening us: 'Danger area. Missile area. Proceed out of here.' That's unheard of, and it's really wrong that we haven't gotten more protection out here."

Fitzgerald also said his ship saw a Russian submarine surface close to the Alaskan coast. U.S. Northern Command said Thursday it was "closely monitoring the Russian submarine that surfaced near Alaska today." It added: "We closely track vessels of interest, including foreign military naval vessels, in our area of responsibility."

U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Kip Wadlow told the Associated Press Thursday that the service had been notified of Russian activity by "multiple fishing vessels" that "were concerned."

Wadlow said the commercial ships were operating in the American exclusive economic zone, where natural resources like fish stocks belong to the U.S. The surface is considered international waters, meaning all international ships can operate there.

USNORTHCOM said the Russian maritime activity "is taking place in international waters well outside the U.S. territorial sea."

The State Department issued a statement Friday condemning the Russian activity. Department spokesperson Larry Pixa said the administration would investigate what it called reports of "unprofessional interactions by Russian military forces with U.S. fishing vessels in the Bering Sea."

"Initial indications are that these interactions stem from a Russian naval exercise," Pixa said, according to APM.

U.S. military officials have warned that Russian military activity off the U.S. coasts—especially by submarine, which are harder to spot and track—poses a national security threat to the U.S.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis said in February that the American east coast can no longer be considered a "safe haven" for shipping due to Russian submarine activity.

Russia, navy, drills, Alaska, Bering Sea, sailors
This file photo shows Russian warships sailing on the Neva river during the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg, Russia on July 26, 2020. DMITRY LOVETSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty