During the U.S. Coast Guard agency report to the Council, Captain Jason Brennell of 17th Coast Guard District and Ms. Staci MacCorkle of U.S. State Department provided an in-depth briefing on the events surrounding the 26 August 2020 encounter between Russian naval vessels and aircraft, and the U.S. domestic fishing fleet legally fishing in the U.S. EEZ of the Bering Sea. Russian vessels and aircraft were participating in a Russian military exercise called Ocean Shield, which is a multi-fleet, multi-service Russian military exercise that has occurred annually for the past two years in the Mediterranean and the Baltic. This year’s exercise took place in the Bering Sea and the Arctic regions, which aligns with Russia’s Arctic strategy of using the Northern Sea Route to exploit Arctic resources in the future.
During the 26 August encounter with several of U.S. fishing vessels, Russian naval vessels and aircraft directed these U.S. fishing vessels to depart the area due to safety concerns associated with a missile launch. As noted in September 22, 2020, testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Security, the tone of the request by Russian warships and aircraft resulted in U.S. captains and their crews experiencing genuine fear for their safety, and resulted in operational decisions that cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost fishing opportunities and gear.
It was noted by the U.S. Coast Gard during their presentation that the U.S. fishing fleet is not required to depart from legal fishing grounds in the U.S. EEZ at the directed of a foreign entity. However, safety of life at sea should always be paramount in managing the safe navigation of any vessel on the high seas, and it is the responsibility of the mariner with firsthand situational awareness. The responsibility of safety within a military exercise firing zone in international waters and on the high seas belongs to the military service and Nation conducting the exercise. Essentially, everyone on the high seas has a responsibility to themselves and one another to operate in a safe manner.
To advise mariners of the planned Ocean Shield exercise, Russia used the HYDROPAC process to provide information on the area of operation. HYDROPAC are navigational warnings that are issued regularly and contain information about persons in distress, or objects and events that pose an immediate hazard to navigation. HYDROPAC is one of five types of navigation warnings that are categorized by their location. These maritime security alerts and advisories are issued by the US Maritime Advisory System. Mariners can subscribe here to receive email updates at sea (via Iridium, INMARSAT, Globalstar, or other method of internet access).
In staff tasking, the Council thanked the U.S. Coast Guard for the thorough briefing, while highlighting the alarm that this situation created for U.S. vessels. The Council recommends that the Coast Guard consider additional ways to improve communication with vessels and communities in the future.
Staff contact is Jon McCracken.