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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Trawler Seized in U.S. Waters Abruptly Released

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A Russian fishing ship seized Sept. 4 on a charge of fishing illegally in U.S. waters has been abruptly released from custody at Dutch Harbor.

The seizure of the trawler Viytna had angered Russian politicians who dispute the Bering Sea dividing line between Alaska and the Russian Far East.

U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday that prosecutors have asked for dismissal of the court complaint his office filed Monday seeking forfeiture of the ship and about 70,650 kilograms of processed fish.

"There's insufficient grounds for us to proceed," Burgess said. He suggested an investigation was continuing but would not elaborate. Dan Harris, a Seattle attorney representing the ship's owners, said the case was being dropped because the Coast Guard made procedural errors in ordering the trawler to stop. He said prosecutors had sought to fine the ship's owners $750,000.

"I think it was the right decision the government made," Harris said.

And on a broader level, the case could prompt Russian fishing interests to challenge the Bering Sea dividing line in U.S. courts, Harris said.

The line was redrawn in 1990 after negotiations between the former Soviet Union and the United States. U.S. officials ratified the line but the Soviets never did, and Russians have complained that it unfairly gave the Americans too much valuable fishing territory.

"They feel that 10 miles [16 kilometers] of maybe the best fishing grounds in the entire world were taken from them," Harris said. American fish biologists believe pollock generally are more abundant in U.S. waters because of more conservative catch limits.

According to the court complaint, a Coast Guard C-130 patrol plane spotted the Viytna on Sept. 4 with its trawl nets in the water 697 meters inside U.S. waters. The C-130 crew ordered the ship to stop and prepare to be boarded, but it continued to fish and headed into Russian waters. The ship finally hauled in its nets and speeded up, the complaint says. The Coast Guard cutter Rush headed to the area and launched a chase helicopter.

The cutter crew then warned the trawler that force would be used. The trawler made several course and speed changes to avoid the cutter's attempt to deploy lines to foul the Viytna's propellers, the complaint says. It finally stopped and the Coast Guard escorted it to Dutch Harbor.

The trawler is owned by private Russian company Korsakov Tralflot of Sakhalin Island, Harris said.