The US State Department is now investigating encounters between a fleet of Russian warships and US groundfish vessels in US waters last week.
"The Department of State is working with the US Coast Guard and the Department of Defense to investigate reports of unprofessional interactions by Russian military forces with US fishing vessels in the Bering Sea," a State Department official told IntraFish on Monday. "Initial indications are that these interactions stem from a Russian naval exercise."
Last week, US fishing vessels chasing Alaska groundfish in the Bering Sea had a close encounter with a fleet of Russian warships, according to Alaska Public Media.
“They are telling American fishing vessels to move out of the way,” Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, told the media outlet last week. “They’ve got some submarines and destroyers and nobody knows anything about it.”
Below is partial video captured by Captain David Anderson of the longline cod-harvesting vessel F/V Blue North.
The US Coast Guard was notified of the encounters and was told by the Alaska Command at Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson the Russian military was doing “pre-scheduled military operations."
The pollock boats were operating within the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which reserves fishing rights for American boats but doesn’t block international vessels from entering, according to the Coast Guard.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she is concerned by the encounter in a statement to IntraFish on Monday.
"I have been briefed by Rear Admiral Bell, 17th Coast Guard District Commander and Lt. General Krumm, Commander of NORAD, ALCOM, and the 11th Air Force," she said.
"I am working with the Department of State, in addition to the Department of Defense and the United States Coast Guard, 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.”
Since the initial reports of the clash between the Russian military and US fishermen, new details and videos have emerged.
Some vessels reported being buzzed by Russian planes and ordered out of the area on a specific heading.
"We were caught by surprise,” Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association told local Alaska media.
“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. And then it’s unclear what impacts could continue through the time that the Russians have given us notice the exercises will be underway.”
Russia's navy chief, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov told the Associated Press that more than 50 warships and about 40 aircraft were taking part in the exercise in the Bering Sea, which involved multiple practice missile launches.
“We are holding such massive drills there for the first time ever,” Yevmenov said in a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry. He said the naval exercises were part of Russia’s efforts to boost its presence in the Arctic region and protect its resources.
Yevmenov said that more than 50 warships and about 40 aircraft were taking part in the exercise in the Bering Sea. The Alaska pollock fleet, according to initial accounts, reported spotting up to five Russian military ships and a submarine in US fishing grounds.
Experts say this is unlikely to be the last encounter between Russian and American vessels in the Bering Sea, as the warming Arctic becomes an area of increasing military and economic focus for global powers.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see more of this type of exercising and significant military presence in the Arctic — we just haven’t seen it for a long time.”