THE SOVIET’S FLOATING CITY IN OUR ATLANTIC WATERS
Twenty-five thousand Russian fishermen, aboard a city-fleet of 200 ships, are scouring the banks of Newfoundland. They live with most of the comforts of home and stalk fish with scientific precision. They are, in fact, the first wave of history's biggest fishing offensive
JOHN D. HARBRON
A FEW HOURS BY TRAWLER from Canada's Atlantic coasts the Soviet Union is carrying out the biggest, most relentless fishing operation in history. It threatens the livelihood of 45,000 Canadian fishermen, the economy of the Atlantic provinces, the east coast's $60,000,000 fish-selling business and, ultimately, the future of all fishing for the men of sixteen countries who fish the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
Canadian marine officials and some fishermen say the Russians may soon be catching so many fish offshore that they’ll leave nothing for Canadian boats inshore. Long before then the Russians may have moved in on the Canadian fishermen’s markets. So far they have taken their catch home to the U.S.S.R. But the newer Russian trawlers can arrive in any port with hundreds of tons of fish already filleted, frozen and packaged. They coald unload in our vital markets in New England and the U. K.
Finally, some fisheries officials fear that at the rate the Russians are catching fish today, and the rate they’re building ships to catch
more tomorrow, there won't be enough fish left in the ocean to breed future catches. "We've never seen anything like it." says Ci. N. Ciillespie of the federal department of fisheries in Halifax. "If they don't slow down soon, the Russians are going to fish out the North Atlantic.”
The Russians are newcomers to the banks. Before I960 no North Atlantic fisherman had ever seen a full-scale Russian fishing fleet. That summer 180 Soviet ships arrived together about 100 miles off Newfoundland. Some were as big as small transAtlantic liners; many were freshly launched 3.500-ton sternramp factory trawlers, of a design and performance older banks fishermen soon learned to recognize; and all of them had come in convoy from ports 4.000 miles away on the Baltic Sea or Arctic Ocean. Their crews totaled 25,000 men and, in the Commons, Newfoundland Liberal J. R. Tucker complained, "There are more Russians out there than Newfoundlanders." (Tucker wasn't joking; there are only
about 18,000 fishermen in Newfoundland.)
By now, probably even more Russian ships are fishing the banks off Newfoundland. Robin Molson. a fisheries statistician at St. John's, estimates they number about 230 ships. Dr. Wilfred Templeman, chief biologist at the Newfoundland fisheries research station, says, "A Newfoundland dragger trying to fish with the Russian fleet would be like a man on a bicycle in New York traffic."
But it isn’t just the size of the Russian fleet that worries Canadian officials; it's the way the Russians fish. "Their huge nets literally roll up the sea and sweep up all the fish," says Ciillespie. "They leave nothing in the water. They throw no fish overboard. You don't even see a dead fish floating belly up. Their whole operation is like a giant carpet sweeper at work."
The Russians fish the way a good army opens a campaign. Their fleet is not just a bunch of assorted ships and men and women. It's a tightly organized and well-directed team, serviced by water tankers, floating machine
shops and floating
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They want a sixth of the world’s fishing catch by 1965. To get it, they’re building 14,000 ships
warehouses. Pilot ships lead the army to the fish, and the pilots use the world’s biggest collection of precise data about the habits of ocean fish to find their quarry. No fleets anywhere have more electronic gear for tracking down fish and the newer Soviet trawlers can stay on the banks hauling them in for three months at a stretch, winter or summer, before heading back to the Baltic.
The Russian fleet is also a kind of city at sea. The citizens are sailors, factory hands, fish handlers, manufacturers, maids, waitresses, doctors, shopkeepers and scientists. Some foreign fishermen (but no Newfies, so far) have been invited aboard Russian fishing ships at sea to watch movies. John Stimberis, a New Englander on the trawler Wisconsin, visited a Soviet fishing supply ship last fall and said later he’d never seen, on any American merchant ship, furnishings to match the Russians'. He couldn't get over the bulkhead-to-bulkhead carpets. (His hosts gave Stimberis perfume and cigarettes, but he wasn't so impressed by Russian luxury that he didn't report later that the Russians were using fine-mesh nets and crowding American ships off George's Bank, south of Nova Scotia. )
The supply ships, or “fleet mother ships,” of the kind Stimberis visited, may be any tonnage from 9,000 to 17.000 tons. Their job is to keep a dozen classes of fishing vessels pulling in as many fish as possible for as long as possible. They carry spare fuel, spare parts and spare crew's. They're also a kind of floating headquarters for the entire fleet; each morning on the banks, strategy conferences are held aboard mother ships to determine where the fish are, the right length for trawls, probable weather and priorities for repairs. These decisions are largely made by the scientists who sail with every Russian fleet.
But the real strength and pride of Russian commercial fishing is not the mother ship but the 3,500-ton stern-ramp factory trawler. In a good year, one of these ships — called Pushkins since so many are named after poets and social critics — can haul in 5,500 tons of fish, or as many as most east coast Canadian fishermen bring aboard in a lifetime. There are probably thirty Pushkins off Newfoundland now. Their big nets are winched by motor down a stern chute into the sea. The nets arcdragged by cables as thick as a man’s thigh along the shallow ocean beds of the banks; then, hours later, winched back up with as much as ten tons of fish. The fish are immediately cleaned, filleted, frozen anti frequently packaged on two working decks. On a third, the offal and organs are made into fish oil, fish meal, even medicinal pills. And astern, there isn’t a fishhead left for the gulls.
Pushkins are almost as long as Canadian navy frigates. They carry sixty men and thirty women. Most of the women are fish handlers and packagers but half a dozen are maids and waitresses for the officers. The ships are equipped with sick bays, recreation cabins, canteens, radar, radio direction finders, radio weather recorders, a battery of electronic fish-finders and, always, scientists.
The Russians are building Pushkins with extraordinary speed. Two years ago Jan Olaf Traung. of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, reported that Russia had ordered construction of seventy new Pushkin-type trawlers, at a cost of $270,000,000. (The Soviet Union already had twenty in the water.) A. A. Ishkov, former Soviet minister of fisheries, said recently the Russians now have seventy Pushkins at sea and six more about to be launched. As if these weren’t enough. East Germany and Poland are also building stern-ramp trawlers and their fishing fleets have begun to arrive on the banks off Canada.
Not surprisingly, the Russians claim they invented the idea of moving the trawling operation from the ship’s side to the stern. Other countries use stern-ramp
trawlers and more are being built in western Europe but, regardless of who invented them, the Russians have far more than any other country. (They also have the two biggest stern-ramp ships: 44,000ton whaling factories, each with a crew of 700. tanks holding 18,000 tons of blubber and a maximum daily intake of sixty-five whales. )
The birth of the Pushkin is only one reflection of the Soviet Union’s sudden drive to increase drastically its fish catches all over the world. The first open statement of Russia’s plans came in 1959 in the communist government’s Seven Year Plan for economic development. It stated flatly that the Soviet Union would increase its total catch sixty percent by 1965; to do it, the USSR would build 14,000 new fishing ships. The target was 4.6(H),000 tons — almost a sixth of the total world catch. In 1958 the Russians had caught 2,900,000 tons of fish; in 1960 — the year the Soviet armada first arrived off Newfoundland — they caught 3.000.000: and last year, 3,700,000. On the way up, they passed the United States, then the world’s secondbiggest fish catcher; now the only country harvesting more fish than Russia is Japan.
The Russians need the fish. Their decision to assault the North Atlantic banks must have come years before the Seven Year Plan was announced. The communists’ collective farms have never been able to deliver enough high-protein food to feed the country and, since 1956, the Soviet and satellite populations have been rising sharply. Fish and marine-animal protein is the base of Russian vitamin pills. Fish has always been a staple in the diet of Slavic races, and the annual catch from the Caspian Sea has been dropping steadily for over forty years. Finally, hundreds of thousands of Russians are still moving to the new' cities of the Soviet north: in Siberia, everyone needs protein, and Murmansk — as far north as Aklavik — is now the world's biggest fishing port.
The sudden Soviet achievement in commercial fishing is doubly remarkable in the light of the Russians’ embarrassing maritime history. In 1905 they suffered the worst defeats of the battleship era when the Japanese navy wiped out two entire fleets of antiquated Russian battleships. By the 1930s Russian fishermen w;ere known outside the country chiefly for catching sturgeon, whose eggs make good caviar. And as late as 1950 the bidk of Soviet merchant vessels were U. S.-built Liberty and Victory ships, loaned to the USSR in 1944 and never returned.
But if the Russians have a mediocre seafaring history, neither are they hampered by the conventions of traditional fishing countri>(Pi tee Edward Island fishermen refused to use stern-ramp trawlers when
three were built in 1952; the ships had to be converted to a conventional design. )
In less than a decade, the Russians’ willingness to employ science to catch fish has made them the slickest offshore fishermen afloat. Every Russian deep-sea fishing skipper makes daily reports on water temperatures, the ocean bottom and the patterns of fish migration. By now, Soviet marine scientists have collected enough data to enable any skipper, in any weather, to tell how deep the fish are likely to be running.
Before they step aboard the smallest deep-sea fishing ship. Russian scientists, ships' officers and crewmen are trained to find and catch fish. The USSR now has 250 marine research institutes and schools for fishermen; one school alone, the Secondary Fisheries Technical Institute at Astrakhan, has 550 resident students and graduated 200 last fall. GOSMOLOV — The Soviet Deep-Sea State Fishing Monopoly -— isn’t just the biggest fishing company on earth; it’s also the biggest operator of marine research vessels. It even has a research submarine that operates among the fishing fleets at sea. For the Russians, deep-sea commercial fishing is becoming an exact science.
The Russians have another advantage over Canadian fishermen — money. Dr. Wilfred Templeman of the Newfoundland fisheries research station, a man who knows Russian fishermen as well as tiny Canadian, says they can't understand our determination to keep costs low' and make fishing pay. “They don't care what it costs,” Templeman says, “as long as they get lots of fish.”
Russia’s determination to get fish offshore is already reducing the inshore catch which is the livelihood of most Newfoundland fishermen; all fishing within 100 miles of the coast thins out the schools that swim into the bays in summer and early fall. What makes the Russian effort more ominous than those of other countries is the Soviet plan to build hundreds of factory trawlers within the next five years. The Atlantic provinces can expect heavier Russian fishing on the banks every year.
The size of the Russian fleets has already caused some resentment in Newfoundland and there have been sporadic complaints that the Russians stray inside Canada’s three-mile limit. But Newfoundlanders have had little to do with the Russians themselves. At sea, there have been no incidents. Ashore, St. John’s police report there have been few cases of desertion from Russian ships — fewer than among the sailors of any other nationality — and that no Russians have been involved in any form of law-breaking. Off Nova Scotia, the closest thing to trouble came when Caitain George Crouse of
Lunenberg saw the Russians move one of his floats marking a scallop bed. Crouse’s propeller later became tangled in a Russian net. He says both cases were the result of a “mutual misunderstanding of fishing technique” and that the Russians were friendly and sympathetic. The Russians are well-disciplined and determined to avoid international complications. They don't seem interested in much except fish.
In Newfoundland there have been suggestions that the countries that fish the banks impose their own limits on both the number of ships they send and the tonnage they catch. There is no reason to suppose the Russians wouldn't agree to conservation measures. So far as is known, they have abided by present international agreements regulating banks fishing.
But Canada might take a more direct step to protect the inshore fishing, at least, on the east coast. She could unilaterally extend her rights to her coastal waters from the existing three-mile limit to twelve miles. Her position in international law would be uncertain but so is everyone else’s w hen it comes to coastal rights. I he three-mile limit has been accepted b\ most countries since the late seventeenth century (it's believed to be the distance a cannon ball could be fired from the shore) but never universally. Peru claims all the water up to 200 miles offshore and enforces its claim with gunboats. At two l.aw ol the Sea Conferences, in 1958 and 1960, Canada worked fruitlessly for the adoption by all countries of the twelve-mile limit. Ironically, two of the countries that already insist on twelve-mile limits on their own coasts are Iceland — whose declaration in 1958 encouraged European fleets to head for our coasts — and. of course, the Soviet Union.
The world-wide fishing revolution
If east coast fishermen and fish exporters are beginning to worry about the future of the inshore catches, few are concerned yet that the Russians will try to invade our markets: they've got Iceland and Norway to think about right now. Besides, according to Dr. Templeman of the Newfoundland research station, the Russians’ fish cost so much to catch they couldn't compete. Dr. John kask. chairman of the fisheries research board, isn t so sure. "Right now the Russians consume all the fish they catch.” he says. "But there's always the chance they'll decide to sell in North America. When they do. they may introduce us to a succulence we’ve rarely known. They freeze the tish with the tails still wagging. Our fish often reach refrigerator plants a week after capture.” The Financial Post reported last July that there could be a real threat that Russia will sell hard in the fresh frozen fish markets in the U. S. and U. k.
Regardless of the territorial limit, the Russian challenge on the banks of the northwest Atlantic should compel changes in the methods of the Canadian fishing industry and the fishermen themselves. They could send more ships out where the Russians are finding the fish. I hey could increase the efficiency of their plants. “Even Portugal, which many Canadians call dirty and backward, is a more efficient fishing nation than Canada,” says one executive in the Nova Scotian fishing industry. “Portuguese canneries are so clean you could eat off the floors. Ours are usually an inch deep in fish offal (the same offal the Russians use to make pills and oil).” Dr. Templeton says, “Any nation that wants to compete with the Russians is going to have to gear up to do it. They’ll have to use the same modern fishfinding and fish-catching methods the Russians use.”
There are signs this gearing-up is be-
ginning now on the Canadian east coast, certainly not on a Russian scale, but at least beginning: five good-sized stern-ramp trawlers are under construction now in the Atlantic Provinces.
Not only the Canadians, but almost all the European countries that have fished the banks for four centuries and some that began coming even later than the Russians. are arriving each year with better ships and better gear than they had the year before. More and more countries are turning to the sea for the food the land can't provide, and finding it. Commercial
fishing isn’t the chancy business it was even twenty years ago when men relied chiefly on experience to find fish, dropped their nets, and hoped. Now. even some Newfoundland ships carry "fish loops” that show the fish below on a picture tube above — and the Newfoundlanders’ electronic gear isn't nearly as elaborate as the Russians'. The Russians have become the most successful fishermen in the international success story off Canada's Atlantic coasts. Success is fine, but in fishing it can be carried too far. Dr. C. F. l ucas, director of the U. k. government marine
laboratory in Aberdeen, had something to say about it recently:
“It has been characteristic of almost all kinds of fishing that success has usually led to a ruthless exploitation until the stock has been unable to recruit and grow as fast as man has reaped.”
If that happens in the North Atlantic, the Russians and everyone else might as well stay home, if
Mr. Hnrbron is the author of Communist Ships and Shipping, to be published in July by Clarke Irwin ACo. Ltd.