Fishermen Say They Sometimes Snag Subs -- Navy Denies Any Knowledge

Commercial fishermen in the Northwest say submarines - both U.S. and Soviet - have been responsible for sinkings and other damaging encounters with sea-going vessels in recent years.

Nick Rusinovich Jr., Roger Barney and Steve Fairham were shrimping 20 miles off Westport in the spring of 1985 when, somewhere in the depths below, a Soviet submarine snagged their nets.

At least the U.S. Navy, months later, strongly implied off the record that it was a Soviet submarine.

The Camaron, Rusinovich's 55-foot, double-rigged shrimper, capsized and sank. The vessel, out of Astoria, was only 6 years old.

Rusinovich ultimately received more than $30,000 in insurance payments for his boat, but only after the Navy submitted a brief classified report to the National Marine Fisheries Service blaming the incident on a foreign vessel.

Rusinovich's Portland lawyer, Daniel F. Knox, wrote that a Navy lawyer, Cmdr. John G. Harrison Jr., was convinced that the Camaron tangled with a submarine, but not an American submarine.

``Harrison advised that because of the highly sensitive nature of the information involved, the Navy could not and would not release to us any details of its investigation,'' Knox wrote.

``During the process of working on this claim,'' Knox wrote, ``I have learned that the Navy has confessed to liability on three or four instances similar to this one, and in each case, the Navy has negotiated reasonable settlements on a relatively prompt basis.''

Navy policy is not to discuss any aspect of submarine operations. In fact, Navy and Coast Guard spokesmen in the Puget Sound area disavowed any knowledge of submarines tangling with Northwest fishing boats or gear.

The Camaron capsizing was Barney's second run-in with a submarine.

Barney, who lives in Gearhart, Ore., was working eight years ago with skipper Danny Parker and crewman Lloyd Wilson on the Howard M, a 68-foot shrimper out of Warrenton, when they snagged what the Navy believed was a 6,000-ton Soviet attack sub. Parker got a crude image of it on his sonar.

The Howard M was fishing 25 miles off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where Trident ballistic missile subs from Naval Submarine Base Bangor submerge and surface - and where Soviet subs routinely come to snoop.

``The Navy took my sonar paper and everything,'' Parker said. ``When it first happened, the Coast Guard and the Navy both denied that anything had happened at all.''

``They really tried to hush us up,'' Barney said. ``But there were a lot of boats around and it was already on the radio - the VHF channels.''

Within a few days, a newspaper in Hawaii published a story, and Parker started getting calls from reporters.

So the Navy turned it into a public-relations blitz and invited Parker up for a tour and lunch at the Bangor submarine base.

Parker eventually received about $4,000 for his lost net and other equipment. He also got his sonar paper back.

Another incident occurred Nov. 1, 1989, when the 82-foot trawler Recruit, working out of Westport and fishing in 250 fathoms off La Push, was snagged and towed backward for nearly six minutes by what the owners later learned was the 18,700-ton Trident sub USS Alaska.

The Recruit's skipper, Bob Moore, and crewmen Robert Horton and George Bold Jr. cut loose the gear to save the boat.

The Navy accepted responsibility and paid the owners and crew $42,000 for their nets, cable, doors and lost fishing time.

Some commercial fishermen suspect that submarines routinely shadow trawlers and shrimpers to try to hide from some kinds of detection equipment in the noise and clouds of sediment the nets make as they drag along the bottom.

Skipper Jim Scarborough, 49, of Knappa, Ore., had a close call with a U.S. submarine in 1988 while fishing along the Washington coast.

A surface Navy escort vessel radioed a warning to pick up his gear and leave the area. A submarine below his 68-foot shrimper Wendy was about to surface.

No sooner was the gear up than the sub popped to the surface between him and the Navy vessel.

What angers Scarborough and other fishermen is that Navy vessels frequently ignore fishermen's radio calls.

``They'll come right through a fishing fleet and they won't talk to you at all,'' he said. ``It would be nice to know when they're coming through or to have the Navy tell us to get the hell out of an area.''