Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, testified Tuesday at a US Senate subcommittee hearing that US fishing vessels have been shaken by a spate of incidents involving Russian military vessels in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that significantly disrupted operations the Bering Sea in August and September.
"The feeling of certainty and safety has been shattered by recent confrontations initiated by Russian military warships and warplanes with US-flagged fishing vessels operating lawfully within the US EEZ," she testified.
Earlier this summer, the Russian Navy conducted its largest war games exercise since the Cold War near Alaska, according to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Russia has also reopened over 50 previously closed Soviet military facilities and positioned early warning radar and missile systems near Alaska.
She pointed specifically to an incident that happened in August to the catcher-processor vessel Northern Jaeger, which is operated by American Seafoods.
Madsen testified a captain of the ship was harassed so much by both a Russian warplane and warship that the vessel lost "approximately five days of productive fishing time were lost by the encounter and his resulting relocation, an economic harm estimated to total approximately $1.5 (million)."
--Read Madsen's full testimony here (in PDF)
Madsen added in her testimony that when contacted by the captain about the issue, the Coast Guard did not seem aware of the Russian military exercises.
American Seafoods' vessel was not the only one impacted by Russian interference. The freezer longliners Bristol Leader and Blue North were similarly harassed by a Russian military warplane, "which warned that they were in a live missile fire zone and in imminent danger," according to Madsen's testimony.
A captain for one of those vessels was told by the Coast Guard to comply with the Russian orders.
"It was only when the vessels fully complied with the Russian warplane’s orders that the harassment ceased," Madsen testified.
In September a Russian warplane made two direct passes over the pollock catcher-processor Starbound. While the issue didn't result in harassments from the plane, Madsen said "it is extremely worrying if it is indicative of a broader trend," and that the fleet's "feeling of certainty and safety has been shattered."
Madsen said as a representative of the US fishing industry and an American citizen, it is unacceptable for US fishing vessels in the EEZ to be subject to such harassment.
"The fact that US fishing companies, captains and crew had not been directly advised that a major Russian military exercise was planned in their sphere of regular operation is deeply concerning," she said.
"The idea that US vessels could be subjected to this kind of harassment by a foreign military power is alarming. And the notion that U.S. captains should be complying with orders issued by members of the Russian military is offensive. We need to ensure that the events of August 26 never happen again."
She advised the lawmakers to create better communications systems so that fishing vessels can be more of aware of Russian military exercises, emphasizing that the recent events should in no way become the "new normal."
"One of our direct competitors for pollock is Russia right now," Madsen told lawmakers, advocating for the United States to pursue "some very strong actions that indicate to the globe, we’re not going to stand for it."
As Arctic glaciers recede and pollock move farther north due to climate change, Coast Guard Vice Commandant Admiral Charles Ray testified the country should be "planning to be able to exert our sovereignty, protect our resources."
Both Republican and Democratic members who participated in the hearing agreed on a measure to create a fleet of six new icebreakers to assist the Coast Guard with protecting US interests in the region. Congress has already funded the first vessel, which should undergo sea trials by 2024, according to US lawmakers.