The 29 June 2018 issue of Stars and Stripes included an article about the six-member North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, Canada, and the United States). While the theme of the article was the effort to search the northern Pacific for illegal and unregulated fishing boats, the focus was on the U.S. Coast Guard and its deployment of a C-130 aircraft from Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, to Misawa Air Base in Japan. The effort of the C-130 was to enforce the “Law of the Sea,” specifically preventing illegal high-seas drift netting. The nine-member crew on the C-130 patrolled a grid point near Japan and flew back and forth, identifying every fishing trawler it saw along the way.
The article brought back many memories of my nearly two years in Kodiak on board the USCGC Confidence (WMEC-619) in the mid-1970s. The Confidence is a medium-endurance cutter, 210 feet long, with a crew of about 75 officers and enlisted. Foreign trawlers from Russia (then the Soviet Union), South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan could fish in what was then called the United States' Contiguous Fisheries Zone (the designation was changed to Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] in the early 1980s), but only if issued a permit by the United States. This permit specified exactly what and how much fish they were authorized to catch. Our mission was to enforce the restrictions, boarding as many of the foreign fishing trawlers as possible.
Different than the C-130 patrols, our fisheries patrols generally lasted two weeks, totaling about six or seven patrols each year. While that might seem a fairly short time, anyone who has spent time in the Gulf of Alaska or in the Bering Sea knows how rough those waters can be and how quickly their weather can worsen. We boarded the foreign fishing trawlers pretty much whenever we found them. Sometimes we carried a Coast Guard helicopter to help spot them. We also might ask a passing C-130 crew if it saw anything in the way of trawlers. The only thing that slowed us down was waiting for the trawler to bring her nets back aboard. We boarded day or night—the fish don’t care if it’s day or night. A couple of times we would have three boarding teams out on three different vessels.
Two of our boardings stick out in my mind. The first is one in which I didn’t participate. The boarding team went aboard a South Korean trawler in mid-afternoon, inspected the catch, and found a large quantity of halibut hidden behind a large pile of permit-authorized fish. At the time (and I think it’s true today), it was illegal for foreign trawlers to have halibut on board. So, working with Coast Guard District 17, we decided the South Korean long liner would be seized and ordered to go to Kodiak to be turned over to the National Marine Fisheries Agency for prosecution. I was picked to lead the custody crew and spent three days on board the boat getting her to Kodiak.
The second prominent memory is a boarding in which I did participate. We boarded a Soviet fishing trawler at about 2000, an hour or so after sunset (back then, we referred to a large Soviet fishing trawlers as a BMRT—a big mother Russian trawler). I opened a “machinery” room and found a small pile of wax paper that happened to contain three or four halibut, carved up and salted. Because she was a Soviet trawler, we had to obtain U.S. State Department permission to seize the vessel. So, the information about the halibut was passed to the 17th District, which passed it to the Coast Guard Liaison to the State Department for a decision on whether to seize the trawler or not. Well, I stayed on board the vessel waiting for the answer. After about 12 hours, the response came back to let the trawler go but document the infraction—something that might impact her next permit—specifically the amount of fish they would be permitted to catch.