Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Popeck, a boarding team coxswain for the USCGC Mellon (WHEC 717), approaches the fishing vessel Polar Star to deploy a boarding team to enforce laws and regulations related to U.S. fisheries in the Bering Sea on May 30, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough)

Lookouts of the Last Frontier on Bering Sea Patrol

In the Bering Sea, the middle of nowhere is everywhere. There is no internet or cell service for a thousand miles. Atka, Adak and Attu are some areas on the chart that live up to their name as remote outposts on a distant planet. A rocket can blast to the next galaxy before a mariner catches sight of an island in The Last Frontier. You’re not in space. You’re on an Alaskan patrol.

The Coast Guard Cutter Mellon, homeported in Seattle, and its 180 crew members embark every year on their Alaskan patrol from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the nation’s top fishing port. The Mellon and its crew divide their patrols between the Pacific Ocean adjacent to Mexico and Guatemala. In the Eastern Pacific, offshore South America, the crew interdicts drug smugglers in the Joint Interagency Task Force – South area of responsibility.

In the Bering Sea, the Mellon crew keeps a lookout for mariners in distress and enforces laws and regulations related to the preservation of U.S. fisheries stocks. Markets fluctuate every hour, but it’s the pollock stocks that affect the dinner tables and negotiating tables of the nations in the East and the West.

“Pollock is the big one – the major fishery in the Bering Sea. Pollock and Pacific Cod are two of the biggest fish types in the world that you’ll find in any grocery store around the globe,” said Lt. Gregory Mitchell, operations officer for the Mellon. “Working together with our partners is vital to ensuring the sustainability of those fish stocks.”

Located in the Aleutian Basin of the central Bering Sea, the Donut Hole was once the sweet spot for pollock fishing. The void left from overfishing in the nearly 400-mile wide hole prompted the U.S. to halt the use of driftnets. South of the Maritime Boundary Line the U.S. and Russian Economic Exclusion Zones separate to form an area of international water known as the Donut Hole.

Along the Maritime Boundary Line and within the Donut Hole, illegal, unregulated and unreported fisheries are the mission for Mellon. Focusing on many different types of fishing vessels and ensuring those vessels are not crossing into the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone to fish, the culprits of violations from another nation or type of fishing gear being utilized can range far and wide.

North of the Donut Hole is where an international fishing rodeo ramps up in the Bering Sea. Along the 100 Fathom Curve, a depth of water where the shelf slopes down to the abyss, interactions between the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Bering Sea mix with rising water and heat from the sun to create a plume of nutrients.

“The Bering Sea is a well-known area for its fish stocks, for the amount of biomass that is located there, and a lot of people want in on the taking for it,” said Mitchell.

To prevent illegal encroachment of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone by foreign fishing vessels, the Mellon patrols about 100 miles of the Maritime Boundary Line along with the Russia Border Guard during Operation Bering Shield. Mellon boarding teams often come in contact with Russian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Indian Ocean nation vessels fishing for pollock.

The Mellon also monitors fishing fleets for illegal oil spills, oil discharges or other hazardous material releases. The area of heaviest foreign fishing vessel activity is along the MBL north of the central Bering Sea. A large number of Russian fishing vessels will spread out from the MBL westward along the 100 fathom curve toward the Russian coast.

From time to time foreign fishing vessels cross the line in pursuit of their catch. When they do, the Mellon is there – supported by an embarked MH-65 helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak to take enforcement action. Further south along the Alaskan peninsula, the Mellon enforces regulations for the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect domestic fish stocks.

As a result of the Coast Guard and its partners’ efforts, sightings of fishing vessels illegally fishing in U.S waters have declined. The number of vessels spotted or seized since 2010 can now be counted on one hand.

“The numbers for Alaskan fisheries as a whole for crab, pollock, Pacific Cod, halibut, Black Cod – all of it – is valued at about $6 billion, so it’s a very substantial amount of money,” said Mitchell. “It is a massive food supply for the U.S. and the globe to some degree. It makes up a majority of seafood produce at the grocery stores today.”

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