Bering Sea pollock fishermen had a close encounter Wednesday with Russian military vessels conducting pre-planned exercises, according to industry officials and a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.
"They are telling American fishing vessels to move out of the way," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, an industry trade group. "They've got some submarines and destroyers and nobody knows anything about it."
The Coast Guard was notified of the encounters Wednesday, checked with Alaska Command at Anchorage's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and learned that the Russian military assets were doing "pre-scheduled military operations," said Kip Wadlow, a Juneau-based Coast Guard spokesman.
The pollock boats were operating within the U.S. "exclusive economic zone," which reserves fishing rights for American boats but doesn't block international vessels from entering, according to Wadlow.
"We appreciate the concern of the fishermen — they saw something that they had concerns about and they notified us," Wadlow said. "And we were able to reach out to our counterparts at Alaska Command and confirm this was something that was known about."
In a tweet early Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted a video of what it says were exercises by its Pacific Fleet. It said a missile cruiser ship called the Varyag and a nuclear submarine called the Omsk conducted joint missile firing at targets in the Bering Sea.
Photos of the encounters spread quickly on social media late Wednesday. Paine's members told him their vessels saw five Russian warships and possibly two submarines — which made a quick impression.
"If you've got a net in the water and a submarine's coming through," Paine said, "you're going to lose the battle."