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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coast Guard Aims Guns at Fishermen

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Coast Guard said it took the unprecedented step this week of threatening to open fire on a Russian-crewed fishing vessel suspected of using illegal drift nets off Alaska when it refused to surrender.

Coast Guard spokesman Commander Jim McPherson said Thursday a U.S. cutter had chased the vessel, the Arctic Wind, for five days after a Coast Guard aircraft spotted the ship violating a ban on drift netting in international waters.

Called "curtains of death," the nets - often 8 or more kilometers long - kill birds, mammals and other sea creatures caught in their wake. They are also believed to be a major cause of overfishing.

"The Coast Guard will not allow people to conduct this type of illegal fishing and will take whatever action is necessary," McPherson said.

When the Arctic Wind consistently ignored warning messages sent from the cutter by radio in several languages, lights, bells and flags, the captain of the cutter was given permission Monday to use "warning or disabling shots" on the ship.

"This was the first time the Coast Guard had ever gotten permission to fire warning shots and disabling fire on a fishing vessel in international waters," McPherson said.

"We had been chasing this guy for days. We only have one cutter up there in Alaska and we can't afford to chase one ship all the way from Alaska back to Russia," he added.

McPherson said Coast Guard officials had boarded the boat and were completing legal and diplomatic formalities to seize the 54-meter vessel, staffed by Russians and with an expired registration in Honduras. The Arctic Wind was catching salmon for sale in Japan.

The cutter never actually opened fire but its captain ordered the crew to make a show of force by pulling up close to the fishing vessel and uncovering the Coast Guard boat's machine guns and rotating its big gun toward the fishing boat.

Within moments, the Coast Guard said the Russian vessel radioed to ask what the cutter was doing. "You wouldn't shoot us on the high seas," radioed the vessel. The captain of the cutter responded he had no choice unless the Arctic Wind surrendered.

Moments later the vessel surrendered. The massive, 8-kilometer long polyurethane net was hauled in and officials counted about 300 whole salmon, three sharks, 20 puffins and two albatross. The net, which had floats, stretched 90 meters down from the surface of the water.