Sunday, March 29, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sensors May Help Track Drift-Net Fleets -- Sub Detectors Can Track Boats

An underwater listening system created in the 1950s to find Soviet submarines may be used to track boats illegally fishing with drift nets in the North Pacific.

Last month the Enforcement Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command began discussing the possibility of using the Sound Surveillance System.

The system, known as SOSUS, rings the North Pacific and part of the Atlantic with hundreds of underwater listening devices called hydrophones.

SOSUS hydrophones were highlighted in Tom Clancy's best-selling novel and subsequent movie, "The Hunt for Red October."

The hydrophones are spaced at 5- to 15-mile intervals along cables on the ocean floor, according to the 1990-91 issue of Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems publication.


The hydrophones are linked to shore-based computers that record and help the Navy analyze underwater sounds to locate, track and, if possible, identify submarines of the former Soviet Union.

"It is physically possible to track fishing craft with SOSUS," said Capt. James Harnes, public-affairs director for the Navy's warfare-systems command (SPAWARS). But that has not been done and is currently not a part of the Navy's mission, Harnes said.

Steve Springer, special agent in charge of the Enforcement Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, recently went to SPAWARS headquarters in Arlington, Va., to meet with technical-staff members.

"The meeting was strictly exploratory," Springer said. "They (SPAWARS staff) know nothing about high-seas drift-net fleets but are interested in our problems and what our requirements are.

"We are hopeful. That is about the best I can say. This (SOSUS) is something that is in place but set up for something entirely different than our drift-net enforcement problem."


Springer said his hope for surveillance help from SOSUS has been tempered by the possible expense. "The cost numbers could be from the low to hundreds of millions, and I don't have any money."

Nonetheless, both agencies are evaluating ways they could work together and a series of meetings is expected this spring and summer, Springer said.

The idea of using SOSUS to track drift-net boats was brought to Springer by Dave Lewis and Ron Abileah, managers of several programs for SRI International, once called Stanford Research Institute.

Lewis has indicated Springer's cost estimates could be far too high.

"I think $500,000 would pay for the tests and take about three months," he said.

Additional research and equipment could bring the cost of using the system to $2 million, Lewis said.

"We don't see this as being a major diversion of the system. We have found nothing in our preliminary work that shows an adverse effect on the Navy's mission and no need to make major changes. We would process different things a little differently."

Lewis believes "the Navy is perfectly willing. They are not the stopper. The stopper is who is going to pay for it."

If the money were available and a contract quickly written, the testing, research and equipment installation could be done by the beginning of next year's drift-net season, Lewis said.


Information about the system itself isn't easy to find.

The 1979 yearbook of World Armaments and Disarmaments published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute included a map showing presumed locations of SOSUS hydrophones and their range. The institute, founded in 1966, is financed by the Swedish government.

The map shows that hydrophones dot the sea bottom from Southern California to Alaska, westward along the Aleutian Islands and south to the Philippines along the coast of Asia. An area marked in gray shows the hydrophones' range extending the full width of the North Pacific and from a point south of Hawaii north to the Bering Sea.

An illegal drift-net fleet made up of as many as 90 vessels is expected to ignore a United Nations ban on all drift-net fishing that takes effect Dec. 31.

The boats, mostly from Taiwan, are legally classified as pirate vessels because they don't fly their national flags and conceal their identification numbers and radio call signs.

They use 30-mile-long, floating monofilament nylon drift nets called "curtains of death" by critics.

The nets were banned by the U.N. because of their effect on fisheries resources and the devastating so-called "by-catch" of marine mammals and other wildlife.


A Canadian expert estimated the pirate fleet caught 3.9 million salmon and steelhead in the North Pacific in 1990.

The illegal fishing occurs in waters closed for many years by international treaties to all types of fishing.

Joint U.S.-Canadian efforts to enforce the drift-net ban have been limited because of the thousands of square miles of ocean to patrol and the fact that only a single Coast Guard cutter and one Canadian plane are available for the effort.

"It's like searching for the eye of a needle in a haystack," said one official.

Harnes said he cannot discuss the methods, equipment and abilities of SOSUS.

A policy decision to use SOSUS to locate drift-net boats would be made far up the chain of command from SPAWARS.

"The Navy would have to make an evaluation of how using the system for this purpose would impact its primary mission," Harnes said. X One immediate question would be how drift-net boats would be identified among the much larger number of vessels plying the North Pacific, Harnes said.

If that could be done, patrol boats and aircraft could reach the violators with minimal search time.

SOSUS is still classified and, speaking only in general terms, Harnes said it has kept pace with advancements in technology to make submarines run quieter.

Last October, however, the Market Intelligence Reports data base said SOSUS "is aging and the sensors are no longer as effective in performing their mission as they once were" because SOSUS "is apparently unable to detect" the newest submarines "on any kind of a reliable basis."

It said the Navy has decided to replace SOSUS because there are limits to how much it can be improved and has begun work on a new system called FDS.

Jane's Defense Weekly on April 1, 1989, said FDS will supplement SOSUS, operating at different ranges than SOSUS and at specific "choke points" on the ocean floor.

Harnes said only that "FDS is a developmental system."

-- Times information specialist Sandy Freeman contributed to this report.