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Russia: Fishing Conflicts Increase In Bering Sea

Bellingham, Washington; 1 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Since the end of the Cold War, Russian and American fishing interests have been feeling their way, slowly and with many setbacks, toward a negotiated agreement to end a growing and destructive "fish war" in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, which divide the two countries.

So far, this war over who should harvest how much of the commercially valuable white fish, the pollock, that calls those frigid waters home has been marked by two contradictory facts:

The first fact reflects the suspicion and even hostility characteristic of the Cold War. It is the sharp increase in the number of foreign incursions into the waters off Alaska, claimed by the United States. These incursions most recently climaxed in mid-August when the U.S. Coast Guard seized the Russian fishing vessel "Chernyayevo."

The Americans say the Chernyayevo was found fishing six or seven kilometers inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. That internationally recognized zone extends out toward the Russian Far East from the coast of Alaska.

The Coast Guard says its seizure of the Russian vessel was the 12th foreign incursion in the Bering Sea area in little more than two months. That is more incidents than ever before recorded in such a brief period. Coast Guard records show that nine of these incursions were by Russian boats and the rest by Japanese, Polish and Korean vessels, illustrating the multinational dimension of most fishery problems.

The second fact, however, reflects a growing attitude of cooperation between Russian and U.S. fishing interests. A major sign of this cooperation is the current refitting, being paid for by the United States, of a Russian vessel to help monitor fishing stocks in the waters between the two countries. Such a joint effort is designed to foster further cooperation, which is what international fishery management is all about.

This developing cooperation will be tested when both sides resume fitful negotiations over fishing rights that are scheduled for October 20 in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok.

At the center of the maritime dispute is survival of the pollock species that is native to these waters and that is, of course, oblivious to international boundaries.

The United States maintains that over-fishing threatens the future of the fishery for all nations. This is the point where joint monitoring of all fish stocks in the Bering Sea will be crucial, because whatever quotas of fish are deemed appropriate for "harvesting" should not be so great as to deplete pollock's ability to sustain its population, which is spawned mostly in U.S. waters but migrates throughout the area.

Steve Cowper, a former governor of Alaska, says that "if Russian fishing pressure continues to increase on undersize stock, it will damage the future of pollock stocks." In other words, even pollock caught within Russian waters -- if too many and if too young -- can threaten the American fishery, since fewer fish will survive to return to their native waters to spawn another generation.

Both sides seem to agree on the need for scientific research and cooperation in monitoring and managing the pollock fishery. The need for an accord has only become more urgent over the years since the two sides set their first quotas, back in the 1970s. That's because fishing technology has increased in efficiency, heightening the risk of over-fishing.

That's what makes especially significant the U.S. grant of a million dollars to refit a Russian survey vessel, the "Kaganovskiy," with monitoring equipment similar to what the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses in its vessels.

The Kaganovskiy is expected to begin monitoring fish stocks in Russian waters this fall -- about the time that the two sides sit down in Vladivostok to resume negotiations seeking to resolve the maritime dispute.