Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Jan. 9, 2013
Aboard the R/V John N. Cobb in May 1965 we were mapping out schools of hake, trying to determine when and where they appeared off the coasts of Washington and Oregon. As we made echo-sounding runs across the continental shelf approaching the 100 fathom contour we observed a rare sight, a Soviet side trawler. She was slowly working her way south along the continental edge near the 100 fathom contour. It was the first sighting of a Russian fishing vessel in this area that I was aware of. And in fact there was enough interest in it that the June 1965 issue of the Fishermen’s News ran my article “Observations of a Russian Trawler.” (1)
I knew they were fishing flatfish in the Bering Sea in August 1959, because when the John N. Cobb transited though to the Chukchi Sea it encountered a fleet of Russian vessels. After his return in 1959 Lee Alverson, who was aboard and observed the fleet, had given a talk at the University of Washington, College of Fisheries. I remember the presentation well. Lee had a stimulating way of presenting a topic, which was part of the reason I wanted to work for him at the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research unit that he headed. That lecture was published in Western Fisheries in April 1960 (2). When the Cobb was exploring the Gulf of Alaska in 1962 she again came across two Soviet side trawlers fishing Pacific ocean perch (POP) along the continental break at the 100 fathom contour. (3)
On that day May 8, 1965 we decided to observe the vessel closer since it was my first encounter with the Soviets, and the Cobb headed over to her position that was just south of Grays Canyon off the Washington coast. As we approached she turned to starboard (right) and was coming back toward us, making a circle as she started setting her net, a standard procedure for a side trawler setting her gear. As she came out of the circle and was lining up on her drag she followed the 200 fathom contour, dragging the net along the ocean bottom.
The Cobb followed her during the tow, which lasted an hour, and at the end she turned starboard across the mouth of the net. The ship drifted as the winches retrieved the trawl. Once it was up alongside the ship the cod end with the catch was pulled from the water and dumped into a checker on deck. The catch was small and couldn’t be observed, but we believed it was composed of rockfish, sablefish and Dover sole which, from past exploratory drags, were the most likely species present along the 200 fathom contour.
The vessel’s name was in Russian and translated to Adler, and her home port was Vladivostok, Russia. I became interested in this trawler and when I got back I found in the literature that it was built in England as the Pioneer class distance water trawler and that there were 20 of them built for the Soviets between 1956 and 1958. They had a total length of 190 feet and were the top-of-the-line fishing vessels used in the Atlantic distance water fleets built by England. The Soviets had apparently decided to harvest the ocean for food for their people and what better way than to purchase the best ships that the world produced. The Adler was an example of one.
I assumed, since we were in a Cold War with the Soviets, that they were using the Adler to check their charts out for their Navy while pretending to explore for fish populations. I did know that U. S. Navy planes periodically flew over the vessels working or transiting along the coast, since once in awhile they would buzz us during the day. I also believed the Navy photographed them, since at night they would fly low and when they were right above us the world was bathed in light, flashbulbs built in the plane as they took a picture of us. I assumed they were looking for foreign vessels and that they must have been monitoring the Adler.
The Russian crews were friendly when the Cobb first sighted them in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. However, as we drifted near the Adler on that May day and she started to get underway, one of the winch operators heading into the house raised his arm and at that distance I thought he gave us the finger. I reacted by yelling to the skipper, Pete, “Did you see that, he gave us the finger! What gratitude YOU SHOULD RAM THE SOB.”
A few years later, Pete told me about a time when they were alongside a Soviet vessel and invited some of their crew aboard the Cobb. As they sat around the galley table Iver, our cook, gave them something he had just baked and, once they tasted it, a number of arms shot out with the thumbs up, a good sign in their culture and in ours. I probably misjudged the winch operator.
As we left the Russian she apparently headed south toward Oregon, exploring as she went, probably looking for concentrations of POP or sounding for their Navy, or both. I wonder if she found the Perch Spot off Oregon.
We should have expected the whole Russian fleet to arrive, which they did the next year-1966. They came for the fish and they took them.
(1) Hitz, Charles R. 1965, Observations of a Russian Trawler, The Fishermen’s News June 1965, 2nd issue, Vol. 21, No. 11 page 9.
(2) Alverson, Dayton L., 1960, The Japanese and Russian Trawl Fishery in the Bering Sea, Western Fisheries, April, 1960, pp 12-14, 30- 31.
(3) Pruter A.T., 1962, Equipment Note No. 13 – Soviet Trawlers Observed in Gulf of Alaska, Commercial Fisheries Review, Vol. 24, No. 9, pp 11-12 (Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Sep. No. 656)