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Keeping a Watchful Eye on a Line Written in Water

Bering Sea: Day and night, Coast Guard patrols stop foreign trawlers from invading world's richest fishery.

May 02, 1999|TODD LEWAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ON PATROL ON THE BERING SEA — Nothing marks the boundary that runs down the middle of this vast, frigid waterworld.

Yet dozens of fishing boats cluster around it. Coast Guard cutters prowl along it. Surveillance jets and helicopters swoop over it. And, sometimes, shots are fired when poachers ignore it.

The Russian-U.S. maritime line slices across the Bering Sea, the richest fishing grounds left in an overfished world and the latest front in the global free-for-all for control of humanity's watery commons.

It's where the Storis, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, is on patrol this evening, pitching over watery hills in a nonstop hunt for foreign trawlers that sneak into American waters to fish.

Lt. Christina Dutton, into her 16th hour on duty, balances herself on the slanting bridge in the green glow of a radar screen, her red-rimmed eyes checking and rechecking the blips and dots and lines that will alert her to an intruder.

"On the line, you can't let your guard down," she says, then turns back to the navigation charts, the dials, the computer monitors.

Out here, the line means everything to everyone except the prize: the pollock swimming 60 stories below the surface. In the darkness of the deep, they glide in silvery clouds, millions upon millions of them.

Once deemed fit solely for animal feed, pollock is perennially the second or third most consumed seafood in America. The fish appear in fast-food restaurants as fillets, on dinner tables as fish cakes and artificial crab and lobster salads. They are ground into a powdery flour for breads and pastries. In Japan, they're minced into paste for a multitude of foods known as kamaboko. Pollock roe--the egg sacs inside female pollock--fetches high prices in Asia, where it is a delicacy.

These fish, the backbone of Alaska's fishing industry, represent about half of the 4 billion pounds of seafood swept from Alaskan waters each year--a $1-billion business in a good year.

Naturally, everyone wants a piece of the pollock.

On the Russian side, dozens of trawlers from Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Poland and Norway work unchecked, having paid the cash-starved Russian government for fishing permits.

These floating factories hum 24 hours a day, scooping up catches so large that managers measure them in hundreds of tons, with nets so enormous that each could hold a dozen jumbo jets.

With each passing year, the catch dwindles and the vessels creep closer and closer to the line in the sea.

On the American side, the U.S. Coast Guard watches and waits.

Day and night, helicopters, C-130 planes and four cutters patrol a line as long as the road from Boston to Miami. Mission: To keep out hit-and-run trawlers that have already depleted the waters on the Russian side.

These men and women also work 24 hours a day, repairing engines and mopping galleys and running fire drills. And always--always--they must scan for rogue trawlers that sit on the line, waiting for their chance to pilfer a ton or two of fish.

Fierce Conditions at 'the End of the World'

There's no glory in being a fish cop. There are 20-hour shifts, monotonous tasks, mess-hall leftovers, cramped quarters, bad weather.

Squalls erupt in minutes, sometimes three or four in an afternoon. Blizzards dissolve horizons. Gale-force winds whip up swells as high as five-story buildings. Cold snaps freeze waves in mid-curl. Even a summer sun can hide in an instant behind freezing fog and sleet.

And there's the isolation that, as Ricky Dickerson of Booneville, Miss., has learned after a month away from land, chips away at the nerves.

On this day, the 18-year-old "boot"--a word that means rookie--is halfway through a four-hour watch on the flying bridge of the Storis, the Coast Guard's oldest active cutter, built in 1942.

Dickerson is fighting the roll, a windchill of 10 below zero, the flesh-freezing spray, the thought that his sweetheart may not wait for him to finish his tour. There's nothing but a desert of water in his binoculars, and wind that roars like a prehistoric animal in his ears.

Dickerson's lips crack as he grins. "If you're looking for the end of the world," he says, "you found it."

A Battlefield in Mid-Ocean

During a surveillance flight last May off the southwestern tip of the Aleutian Islands, a C-130 crew spotted trouble: Five foreign trawlers on the wrong side of the maritime line were catching salmon with 10-mile-long drift nets--a violation of a U.N. ban on drift-net fishing.

As three Coast Guard cutters steamed to the scene, the trawlers cut their nets loose and scattered.

One of the poachers got away. But the cutter Boutwell intercepted a Russian trawler, handed over custody to Russian authorities, then stopped a Chinese ship after a 1,200-mile, four-day chase through a typhoon. The cutter Jarvis caught up to the fourth poacher, a Chinese ship, near Japan a week later.

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