Hal Bernton

Alaska snow crab harvest slashed by nearly 90%, tanners by 53%

The snow crab is a mainstay of the Alaska crab boat fleet — much of it based in Washington — and the 2021-22 catch limit of 5.6 million pounds, announced Oct. 8, is down 88 percent from the previous season. The 2021 fall harvest of Bristol Bay red king crab, another important source of revenue for that fleet, was canceled for this year because of too few females. The combined impacts of the closure and snow crab cutbacks are a big financial hit to crabbers who in past years have grossed more than $200 million from the two harvests. At a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week, crabbers called for additional restrictions in other harvests. “I implore you to do whatever is necessary to keep the crab fisheries sustainable,” said Jenny Gore Dwyer, whose family owns three North Pacific crab boats, in Oct. 6 testimony before the council. “First and foremost we are a business based on fishing crabs in the Bering Sea … But for us, it’s not just a business, it’s a way of life.” Scientists who study the snow crab are scrambling to understand what happened to them in the aftermath of dire summer survey results that included a more than 99 percent drop in immature females compared to those found three years earlier, as well as substantial drops in mature males and females. The changes in the Bering Sea include dramatic declines in winter ice cover in 2018 and 2019, which resulted in reduced size of a cold pool on the bottom favored by young crab. Some of the causes for the population decline likely include increased predation of the young snow crab by cod which typically stay out of the cold pool as well as overall stress caused by the higher temperatures, according to federal and Alaska state scientists who spoke during the virtual council meeting. Researchers also have tracked increased disease. As the sea bottom warmed, snow crab also appear to have moved much farther to the northwest and in deeper waters than in years past. But scientists, in testimony to the council, said the evidence indicates a big downturn in the population — not just a migration out of the survey zone. “We really do think that … some sort of mortality event did occur,” said Katie Palof, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who advises the North Pacific council about crab. Formed by a landmark 1976 federal law that extended U.S. control over the 200-mile fishery zone off the nation’s coasts, the council — composed of state, industry and federal officials — develops harvest plans in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. In an Oct. 6 vote, the council approved a maximum allowable snow crab harvest of 12.4 million pounds for 2021-22. The State of Alaska, which sets the final quota, opted for a considerably lower 5.6 million pounds. Also on Oct. 8, the state set a quota of 1.1 million pounds for Bering Sea bairdi crab, down 53 percent from the previous season. The crab and fish harvests in the Bering Sea collectively rank as the most valuable fisheries in North America, and the federal council, when it resumes meeting next week, is expected to consider additional restrictions in some other harvests because of the low number of snow and king crab. Bycatch and trawlers The accidental, or bycatch, of crab by other fleets has come under increased scrutiny, although biologists at the council meeting did not find that was a big contributor to the crabs’ decline. The biggest bycatch of red king crab has come from crews who harvest fish with steel, baited traps set along the sea bottom. A significant portion of these fishermen also are crabbers. Since 2008, estimates based on observers aboard some of those vessels indicate the pot-fisheries bycatch has varied from as few as 804 king crab in 2008 to 243,469 in 2018 and 235,607 so far in 2021. Pot fishers must throw back all these red king crab, but biologists estimate only half survive. Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers association, said the bycatch is concerning but noted pot fishers have been testing promising new gear that could reduce bycatch. Crabbers also are seeking more restrictions on the bottom-trawling fleets that while targeting fish also scoop up king crab. Biologists who help assess the stocks estimate that 80 percent of those crab die when they’re returned to the sea as required. During the past 13 years, the bottom-trawl bycatch of king crab has ranged from a high of 85,541 in 2008 to a low of 12,725 in 2018. This fleet has observers on board all vessels, and has a hard cap of the number of king crab they can net. This year, the cap was set at 97,000, and the bycatch so far has been less than 15,500 crab. Next year, that cap will lowered to 32,000, according to Mary Furnuness, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries official who’s involved in managing the harvests. Under the current regulations, a king crab conservation area of the Bering Sea that is off-limits to bottom trawling will be expanded south for 2022. Crabbers are pressing for the council to make an additional expansion to the north to an area that may now be used by more king crab. “What we are proposing with an emergency closed area and requested voluntary actions from all fishing sectors should help crab stocks rebound and hopefully allow us to have a (king crab) fishery next year,” Goen said. That move is opposed by Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a Seattle organization that represents most of the largely Washington-based bottom-trawl fleet. “Crab are moving in unprecedented ways and new closure areas would be an uneducated guess with high potential for unintended impacts,” Woodley said. Woodley said the closure might move bottom trawlers into other areas used by king crab. The North Pacific council also is being asked to do more to protect the accidental harvest of salmon by Bering Sea trawlers. This plea comes in the aftermath of disastrous returns of chinook and chum to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers that severely impacted Alaska Natives in the region who depend on these fish for subsistence. The cause for the decline in these salmon runs is not well understood. Warming trends in the Bering Sea and freshwater are one factor researchers are exploring. Farther south, sockeye salmon runs returning to Bristol Bay hit record levels in 2021. “For the first time in our history, we were not able to harvest salmon. We were not able to throw our nets in the river,” said Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association, which represents 42 rural communities, in Oct. 6 remarks to the council. “Our fishing traditions are fading. Is this the beginning of the end to the Yukon River salmon … “We are in crisis.”

Valuable Bering Sea crab populations are in a ‘very scary’ decline

Federal biologist Erin Fedewa boarded a research vessel in June in Dutch Harbor, and journeyed to a swath of the Bering Sea that typically yields an abundance of young snow crab in annual surveys. Not this summer. At this spot, and elsewhere, the sampling nets came up with stunningly few: a more than 99 percent drop in immature females compared to those found just three years earlier. Biologists also found significant downturns in the numbers of mature snow crab as they painstakingly sorted through the sea life they hauled up. “The juveniles obviously were a red flag, but just about every size of snow crab were in dramatic decline,” Fedewa said. “It’s very scary.” This collapse in the Bering Sea snow crab population comes amid a decade of rapid climatic changes, which have scrambled one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. The changes are forcing them to reconsider how they develop models to forecast harvest seasons. As waters warm, some older crab have moved northwest, young crab are being gobbled up by an increased number of predators and disease is on the rise. All of this could be making crab more vulnerable to excessive harvesting, and that has increased concern over the impacts of trawlers that accidentally scoop up crab as they drag nets along the sea floor targeting bottom-dwelling fish. The forecast for the 2022 winter snow crab season is bleak. At best, it is expected to be considerably less than 12 million pounds. That would be down from a 2021 harvest of 45 million pounds and a fraction of the more than 300 million pounds taken during two peak years in the early 1990s. The iconic Bering Sea red king crab, which can grow up to 24 pounds with a leg-span up to 5 feet, also are in trouble. In a big blow to the commercial crabbers, many of whom are based in Washington, the October harvest for these crab has been canceled, something that has only happened three times before. Overall conservation measures are expected to wipe out most of the value of the annual Bering Sea crab harvest, worth more than $160 million during the past year, according to Jamie Goen, executive director of the Seattle-based Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. “We have gotten a double blow, and the economic impact is unlike anything we have experienced in this industry,” Goen said. The harvest cutback also will hit some Alaska communities that rely on the crab fleets to help sustain their economies. St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands northwest of Dutch Harbor, is the site of a major crab-processing plant operated by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, and depends on crabbing not only to generate activity for its port but also to pay taxes that prop up the local government. Crabbers want more done to protect crab from some types of fishing, including trawling. Goen said that crabbers will be pressing fishery managers to step up protective measures, such as expanding zones where trawling is not permitted and finding a way to estimate the unseen death toll of crab passing under nets. “We need other (fishing) sectors to come forward and protect the crab,” Goen said. Both king and snow crab are caught off Alaska by steel-framed pots set along the bottom by a fleet of some 60 vessels. Each boat typically employs six to seven crew, some of which have been featured in the Discovery Channel’s long-running reality television series “Deadliest Catch.” Most of the king crab harvest and snow crab sold in the United States in recent years has been imported from other countries. But the downturn in U.S. stocks could push consumer prices higher. Less ice, warmer water Ocean conditions are key for scientists studying the decline of Bering Sea crab, which for all species are now estimated to be at their lowest overall levels in more than four decades. “This is huge,” said Bob Foy, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “It is a massive shift for our ecosystem in the Bering Sea, and the implications for other fisheries are just starting to be thought through.” He notes snow crab juveniles looked to be on an upward trend just two years ago. Then, in the space of 48 months, they appeared to have imploded. One focus of research is the Bering Sea ice that forms each winter, and acts like a giant platform for growing algae at the base of the food chain. As it freezes, the ice sheds a dense layer of cold, briny seawater that eventually forms a cold pool on the bottom, prime conditions for young snow crab. In some recent winters, there has been a big reduction in the extent and thickness of the ice. During these weak ice years, the size of the cold pool has shrunk, a retreat closely mapped by federal researchers. One of the crab’s voracious predators — cod — do not like the chill temperatures in the cool pool. The warmer temperatures appear to have made it possible for cod to hunt far more young snow crab, according to Fedewa, who said analysis of cod bellies show they are eating more crab. “The assumption is that the thermal barriers in cold-water habitat that have protected juvenile snow crab from predators like Pacific cod are basically breaking down,” Fedewa said. King crab also may be suffering from increased predation. Earlier federal research in the 1980s showed that young Bristol Bay sockeye salmon like to feed on larval king crab. In recent years, there have been a series of strong sockeye runs that may be due, at least in part, to warmer and more favorable conditions in the lakes where they rear before heading to saltwater. “That is a hypothesis that needs to be looked at more,” Fedewa said. Shifting populations The warming trends in the Bering Sea appear to be increasing the numbers of crab found farther north. The trends, tracked through surveys, are not fully understood. The fall Bering Sea king crab harvest was canceled because of low numbers of mature females. But this summer’s survey found an increase in mature king crab females in more northern areas. These crab were tallied outside the main survey zone, and thus not used to calculate potential harvests. Snow crab populations also appear to be shifting. This last winter, crab skippers reported an unusual harvest season when the main concentrations of snow crab were found some 500 miles northwest of Dutch Harbor, which is about twice the typical distance for February and March fishing. “The crab that we found were good crab. They were just way farther away than we traditionally fish,” said Tom Suryan, who has fished crab for than 40 years and plans to retire. Suryan, skipper of the Bristol Mariner, said that he was about 60 miles from the maritime boundary with Russia. Others boats were even closer. “I could literally spit across the Russian border. I mean, we were on it, down to the quarter mile,” said Owen Kvinge, captain of the Seattle-based Arctic Sea, who suggests some of the U.S. crab may have moved into Russian waters. Tumultuous past Though crab populations fluctuate, there also are cautionary tales of collapses in Alaska that continue to haunt the industry. In the 20th century, the Gulf of Alaska was the site of a major king crab fishery that boomed and then went bust. Shut down in the early 1980s, it has yet to resume. The Bering Sea king crab fishery also has a tumultuous history. The annual catch soared to about 130 million pounds in the early 1980s, then crab stocks crashed and the harvest was shut down. Since 1996, in the aftermath of two consecutive years of closures, the harvests have never topped 22 million pounds, and fell to 2.6 million pounds last year. In a whistleblower complaint filed earlier this year with NOAA Fisheries, a former federal fishery biologist based in Kodiak alleged that federal surveys in the 1970s and 1980s were carried out improperly, with extra tows made in random locations and other steps taken to deliberately inflate the estimates of crab populations. The whistleblower, Braxton Dew, said the faulty surveys set the stage for overfishing, which he called the primary cause of the king crab collapse. “It was a precipitous collapse, and that’s because of all the bogus numbers that were used,” Dew alleged in a recent interview. Foy, the director of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said that survey methods have changed and improved since the time period cited in Dew’s complaint, and that even back then the results were subject to reviews that offered checks and balances. Later this fall, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expected to decide whether the 2020 snow crab (also known as opilio) harvests can proceed, and also is responsible for setting levels for small Bering Sea harvests for bairdi crab and golden king crab. In the years ahead, crabbers are hoping populations can rebound if strong conservation measures are quickly put in place. Yet their livelihoods could face a perilous future if the warming climate works against recovery. “The environmental pressures are enormous,” Suryan said. “Perhaps Bering Sea crab are an indicator species — the proverbial canary in the coal mine. I don’t know. But things are changing, of that we can be certain.”

North Pacific pollock fleet preps for season after tough 2020

Skipper Kevin Ganley spent most of the summer and fall pulling a massive trawl net through the Bering Sea in a long slow search for pollock, a staple of McDonald’s fish sandwiches. The fish proved very hard to find. “We just scratched and scratched and scratched,” Ganley recalls. “It was survival mode.” Ganley’s boat is part of a fleet of largely Washington-based trawlers that have had a difficult year as they joined in North America’s largest single-species seafood harvest. Their catch rates in 2020 during the five-month “B” season that ended Nov. 1 were well less than long-term averages. They also encountered more skinny, small fish — fit for mince but not prime fillets — than in a typical year, according to a federal review of the season. Meanwhile, COVID-19 greatly complicated the essential task of keeping crews healthy as one company, Seattle-based American Seafoods, was hit with outbreaks on three vessels. The pandemic also resulted in the cancellation of some research surveys that help scientists measure fish stocks in a body of water that has been undergoing climatic changes as temperatures warm. This has added an unwelcome element of suspense as crews start their COVID-19 two-week quarantines before the Jan. 20 start of the “A” season. Though the weather often is rough, these winter harvests typically offer prime fishing as the pollock come together in the southern Bering Sea before spawning. But the disappointing fishing in the last half of 2020 has put Ganley on edge about what he and his four crew members will find when they drop their nets. “This is the best time of year,” said Ganley, who captains the 123-foot American Beauty. “If they are not there, we’re in trouble.” Ice platform During the past decade, the fleet’s average annual haul of pollock has tallied more than 2.88 billion pounds. The huge fish populations that sustain such harvests result from the remarkable Bering Sea productivity, which has been driven — in part — by seasonal ice that can act as a giant platform for growing lipid-rich algae at the base of the maritime food chain. In 2018 and 2019, amid a warming trend, there was scant winter ice, and summer Bering Sea temperatures — even on the ocean bottom — soared by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. In those two years, fishery scientists noted all sorts of ecological changes, including pollock and Pacific cod migrating in much greater numbers to the northern Bering Sea and into Arctic portions of the Chukchi Sea. Biologists and Alaska Native villagers also observed increased die-offs of some sea birds and marine mammals. In 2020, an initial cooling trend enabled ice to form across a broad swath of the Bering Sea, and by March exceeded long-term averages. But the ice was thin and quickly fell apart amid storms and warmer temperatures. By early April, when longer spring days help spur algae blooms, it was gone from much of the sea. “That was the time of year when ice should have been near its maximum, and we had this dramatic fall off,” said Rick Thoman, a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher who tracks the ice formation and movement. During the rest of 2020, sea temperatures continued to rise. Though the warming was not as intense as in 2018 and 2019, it still was well above long-term averages, and some sea bird die-offs continued, according to a federal ecosystem report. COVID-19 disruption In a typical year, a series of surveys by federal fishery scientists help assess the algae bloom, the distribution of commercial fish species and the abundance of copepods — small crustaceans that are a key source of food for young pollock. But as the pandemic took hold in the spring, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, headquartered in Seattle, canceled five of six research cruises amid concerns about the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks at sea. “After much deliberation we determined that there is no way to move forward with a survey plan that effectively minimizes risks to staff, crew, and the communities associated with the survey,” said a statement released in May by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But scientists still found innovative new ways to collect some data. Fishermen, for example, helped in taking bottom temperatures with equipment they brought on board their vessels. And scientists figured out a way to roughly measure the pollock abundance through acoustic sonar mounted in three Saildrones, which are remote-controlled 20-foot boats. They were developed by Alameda, California-based Saildrone, and are powered by a mix of wind, solar and hydro power from turbines turned by the motion in the sea. The crewless vessels left California in mid-May and traveled 2,200 nautical miles to the Bering Sea, where they spent much of July and August conducting the pollock survey. Alex De Robertis, a NOAA Fisheries scientist, said the Saildrones had previously been used for survey work in the Arctic, and he was able to quickly develop the survey plan for pollock when the pandemic took hold. He comes up with the survey instructions for the Saildrones, and then the development company directs their movement. “The whole thing worked liked clockwork. It’s amazing,” De Robertis said. Ganley said he twice spotted the craft — bright orange in color and with distinctive fins — as they crisscrossed the fishing grounds. Initially, he thought they might be piloted by some adventuresome sailors until he drew close. “I think it’s brilliant,” Ganley declared. “That’s our hope: scientists like that.” Information gap The Saildrones’ data made a significant contribution to the annual federal assessment of pollock stocks that helps determine the harvest level for the upcoming year. But the Saildrones did not have any trawl nets. So they could not replicate another part of survey work that involves netting fish and assessing their size, weight and age. That information gap means there is more uncertainty about what’s happening to the pollock stocks and why many fishermen struggled to find older, bigger pollock during the summer and fall harvest. Some of these fish may have moved farther north in a continuation of trends of recent warm-water years. But a planned trawl survey of the U.S. portion of the northern Bering Sea was canceled. Fishermen’s experiences of the past year also pointed to other ecological changes, perhaps resulting from the warming trend that has benefited some species that have moved into traditional pollock harvest zones. Ganley said he noticed far fewer humpbacks and other whales in the area where he searched for the scarce large pollock. And sablefish, also known as black cod, turned up in the nets of pollock fishermen in much greater quantities. The final fleet tally of these fish — prized for their rich, oily fillets — was 3,459 metric tons, which was more than 34 times the quantity caught just three years earlier. This was a problem because the tonnage far exceeded the pollock fleet’s allocation. Therefore, much of it — under federal rules — had to be discarded. “It’s tough. There were a lot of small ones that we were catching, and you had to pick them out of the nets and throw them overboard,” Ganley said. The pollock fleet’s dramatically higher take of sablefish enraged other fishermen who make a big part of their livelihoods from catching black cod with longlines set along the bottom with baited hooks. “This is unacceptable by any standards and threatens the health of the sablefish resource throughout Alaska,” wrote Raymond Douville, an Alaska longliner, in testimony submitted in December to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “The trawl fleet is being allowed to trash one resource in order to profit for themselves.” Fewer shore leaves The pollock fleet started 2020 in a kind of splendid isolation as they worked the winter Bering Sea harvests with crews who left their shoreside homes before the COVID-19 pandemic had gained much momentum outside of China. But the risks of the novel coronavirus were demonstrated in May when an American Seafoods factory trawler, fishing for hake off the Washington coast, had one crewmember report feeling sick. Subsequent testing then indicated 85 out of 126 crew were infected with the virus. In the months that followed, the owners of most pollock boats — both the larger factory ships and smaller catcher boats — were able to prevent COVID-19 infections from coming aboard their vessels. That was accomplished with 14-day quarantines, which became the standard for all crews. American Seafood vessels initially had opted for quarantines of as few as five days, but after the spring outbreaks switched to the 14-day quarantines. The company continued to have problems in the summer fishing season in the Bering Sea when 85 of 119 crew members tested positive for COVID-19 during a stopover in the Unalaska port in the Aleutian Islands. That vessel then had to temporarily stop fishing and docked in Seward where infected crewmembers disembarked. COVID-19 also created new tensions in the fleet’s relationship with shoreside communities that are ports-of-call. Alaska public health officials were concerned about the potential for infected crewmembers to spread the virus in remote areas with few health facilities. Meanwhile, boat operators were wary that their crew might pick up the virus onshore and bring it to sea. This made port stops, once an opportunity for crews to savor a rare restaurant meal, far more austere. Ganley required his crew to stay aboard the vessel through most of the 2020 fishing season. He is hopeful that sometime this winter his crew can get vaccine shots. Until then, he plans to repeat the prohibition on shore leaves.

Polar Star icebreaker to head north on rare wintertime Arctic mission

SEATTLE — The global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic reshuffling of the annual cruise of the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. Instead of heading south into the unending light of the Antarctic summer, the Seattle-based vessel will journey north into the winter darkness of the Arctic. As late as August, the 134 full-time crew were still preparing for their traditional role assisting in the resupply of the McMurdo Station on Ross Island, close to the Antarctic continent. That mission was scuttled by the National Science Foundation as the coronavirus pandemic prompted research to be cut back and restrictions put in place to reduce the risk of the virus reaching there. So, in September, the Coast Guard decided to send the Polar Star on the first U.S. icebreaker winter cruise into Arctic waters since 1982. “This is going to be an amazing adventure,” said Capt. William Woityra, the 44-year-old commanding officer of the 399-foot Polar Star. “When I first found about this I told the crew, we were trading our penguins for polar bears and … for the northern lights. The crew is really excited about the chance to go do something different.” For this year’s northbound cruise, the Polar Star will start with a few days of cruising in Puget Sound to make sure that crew quarantines have been effective and there are no “sleeper cases” of COVID-19 aboard the vessel, according to Woityra. Then, the Polar Star will head for the Gulf of Alaska, cross into the Bering Sea and journey through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. Depending on ice conditions, the vessel then could push farther north before making its way back south to Seattle sometime in early March. The Polar Star will travel within the 200-mile economic zone claimed by the United States off Alaska. This is an area that abuts a maritime zone of Russia, which has had a muscular presence in northern waters. In August, a Russian military exercise extended into a U.S. zone of the Bering Sea, where American fishing captains were startled and angered to hear Russians warning them to leave the area. And Woityra, during an online November Wilson Center forum, said one purpose of the cruise was to “wave the flag,” and “ensure that we’re projecting sovereign presence and power.” Two Seattle vessels make up U.S. Arctic fleet Coast Guard icebreakers have stayed out of the winter Arctic for nearly four decades because it only has two Seattle-based vessels. The Healy, commissioned in 1999, is a “medium” icebreaker that breaks ice up to 10 feet thick and typically ventures into the Arctic in the summer and fall. The Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, is classed as heavy — able to break through ice up to 21 feet. That has made it a valued asset helping to carve open channels so that vessels can deliver supplies to McMurdo Station. The two U.S. icebreakers both have had mishaps and maintenance problems. The Healy suffered a fire Aug. 18 that damaged a critical propulsion motor and forced the cancellation of an Arctic mission. The crew of the aging Polar Star has faced many challenges, including a 2019 trip to McMurdo Station when they had to put out a fire that damaged an incinerator and repair a leaking shaft, with the aid of a scuba diver. That repair forced a temporary halt to breaking ice. Russia has long had a much bigger ice-breaking fleet than the United States because so much of that nation borders Arctic waters; it is now on track to exceed 50 vessels. Alaska and Washington’s congressional delegations have pushed for years for the United States to reinvest, and in 2024 the first of a new class of three heavy icebreakers is scheduled to be delivered to the Coast Guard. If congressional funding is sustained, that will be followed by the construction of three new medium icebreakers. Woityra said he has a young crew, mostly under the age of 30, and he expects them to provide some of the expertise and leadership for the new generation of U.S. vessels that will be able to make more frequent trips to the winter Arctic. And, he views this upcoming cruise as a great opportunity for training. “They are showing incredible resilience and agility to shift focus,” Woityra said. “We are able to turn on a dime and say, OK, this is a change but it’s an opportunity.” Woityra says the Polar Star crew is accustomed to Antarctic ice, which may be up to 10 feet thick. Because it is frozen to the shoreline, the ice is typically very flat. The Arctic ice is very different. It’s often broken up and tossed by winds, and it smashes together to create ridges as it piles on top of itself. Then, if it survives the summer, the salt may leach out and the ice becomes harder and denser. Woityra says can be “really challenging” to get through. It is uncertain just what conditions the Polar Star will encounter. The changing Arctic is deeply affected by climate change, which has dramatically reduced the amount of multiyear ice. This year, a Siberian heat wave got a portion of the Arctic sea ice melt off to an early start, and the ice reached its minimum extent Sept. 15 — the second lowest since record-keeping began in the 1970s, according to NASA. While north of the Arctic Circle, the Polar Star will take a series of measurements of ice thickness and concentration. Polar Star researchers will conduct communication and other technology tests, including deploying unmanned aerial vehicles in the darkness of the winter Arctic. They also will test a remote operating vehicle in the frigid ocean conditions. U.S. captains rattled by earlier encounters with Russians The Polar Star’s route will take the vessel through the Bering Sea during the winter fishery when pollock, cod and other seafood is caught by a largely Washington-based fleet of vessels. Woityra said the Polar Star is designed for breaking ice and pitches a lot in rough water, for which the Bering Sea is notorious during the winter. So the plan is to head directly to the Arctic and not linger in the Bering Sea, where U.S. Coast Guard cutters typically conduct winter patrols. Still, the presence of the icebreaker in these northern waters also will be welcome by the U.S. captains who were rattled by the August encounter with the Russian vessels and aircraft engaged in the military exercise. “It definitely makes a difference to have a Coast Guard presence up there whether it be an icebreaker or cutter,” said Capt. David Anderson, skipper of the Seattle-based Blue North freezer longliner. “Just to have them out there for safety is number one in my book but also there is this whole Russia incident, which is something that has never happened before.” In August, Anderson was told by the crew of a Russian plane to leave the area he was fishing, and — after consulting with the Coast Guard — he dropped his gear and moved about 10 miles away, before coming back to resume his fishing. Other captains also reported being harassed by the Russians during the August military exercise. Then on Sept. 14, in a separate Bering Sea incident, a Russian warplane made two direct passes over a U.S. catcher processor vessel at heights estimated to be about 500 feet, then flew over another fishing vessel. “We are concerned that the confrontations by the Russian military with our vessels this summer are part of a broader trend,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association. Madsen said that a robust U.S. presence in the region is “simply nonnegotiable.” Polar Star will be in service until at least 2029 The upcoming Arctic deployment comes as the Polar Star nears the end of its 44th year of service, which is way past its initial 30-year expectation of service. Woityra said that there has been considerable investment in maintenance and that he feels confident the ship is ready for the upcoming trip. And it won’t be retiring anytime soon. During the next five years, $75 million has been allocated to keep the Polar Star running at least until 2029. “We want to make sure that the Polar Star is available to meet mission demands whenever we’re needed,” Woityra said.
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