David Zimmerman’s new book on the Royal Canadian Navy, Maritime Command Pacific, discusses the navy’s anxieties about the presence of Soviet trawlers or merchant ships off the Canadian Pacific coast. Maritime Command Pacific presumed that Soviet ships were undertaking intelligence activities to monitor Canadian naval and maritime air forces, military radio transmissions, and underwater cables. In wartime, they suspected the Soviet fishing fleet would be cut submarine cables, jam radio communications, lay mines, land secret agents, raid isolated shore targets, support Soviet submarine and aircraft operations, or even scuttle ships to block Canadian ports. As a result, planning for home defense in British Columbia included guards for as many as 3,000 captured Soviet seamen, and naval operations included the close surveillance of Soviet fishing vessels in the Canadian area of operations (which extended beyond Canadian territorial waters).
The small size of the Canadian fleet meant that surveillance of the Soviet commercial fleet was thin at best. An example of a more involved operation was the tracing of the Soviet trawler SRT 4454. First spotted by American patrol aircraft on June 8, 1962, SRT 4454 was shadowed over the course of two weeks first by a Canadian Neptune patrol airplane, then by the frigate Stettler, again by Canadian aircraft, and finally by the frigates New Glasgow and Jonquiere. The after action analysis of the operation included the observation that no seagulls followed the ship when it was streaming its trawl, unusual if fish were being caught; reports from the Department of Fisheries and the Pacific Oceanographic Group that the waters SRT 4454 was “fishing” were too deep to catch much of anything; and radar contact by the Neptune with what might have been a submarine nearby. Maritime Command Pacific’s final conclusion was that SRT 4454 might have been planting “underwater navigation fixing aides,” possibly in conjunction with a submerged submarine.
Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s book concludes in 1965, just as the Soviet fishing presence in the eastern Pacific was massively expanding (Carmel Finley’s Pacific Fisheries project has been documenting that expansion here, here, and here). The book also leaves open the question “was the Soviet fishing fleet engaged in spying or other nefarious activities?”
I’ve been looking for anyone writing about this for a while. During the Cold War, the idea that Soviet fishing vessels – as opposed to the intelligence-collecting ships that were built on trawler hulls but openly acknowledged as naval vessels – were heavily engaged in espionage or clandestine operations was widespread. The most dramatic that I’ve ever seen is in the semi-fictional future history World War 3, edited by Shelford Bidwell, in which two Soviet factory ships (the fish-processing mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet) lay mines in the Dover Straits through concealed ports beneath the waterline.
Twenty-four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’ve yet to see any new specifics, despite the range of other disclosures about Soviet military and intelligence activities. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security, but the gap is starting to look like no one has any good stories to tell – or that the stories remain so relevant to current events that they are staying deeply buried to protect sources and methods. Without any direct evidence, the best argument that the Soviets were probably using the fishing fleet for intelligence activities is that NATO nations were doing the same themselves. The US, British, and Norwegians all both 1) operated covert or clandestine intelligence-gathering ships which were disguised as civilian trawlers or merchant ships and 2) collected intelligence by placing agents on genuine civilian trawlers or cargo ships or having their crews collect information themselves.
Whether or not Soviet civilian vessels really did threaten the Canadian Pacific coast, the fear had at least one major consequence. The need for a military presence, no matter how minimal, along the less populated northern British Columbian coast was one of the reasons for creating the Canadian Rangers as a unpaid, almost unarmed (the only weapon issued was the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle), volunteer reserve to protect the coast. The Rangers, who not only still exist but have become a significant part of Canadian military policy in the north.
Source Notes: Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War (UBC Press, 2015) discusses Canadian surveillance of Soviet ships on Pacific coast. American clandestine intelligence-gathering ships are covered in Jeffrey Richelson’s article “Task Force 157: The US Navy’s Secret Intelligence Service 1966–77” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 11 no. 1); more overt intelligence-gathering is in Wyman H. Packard’s A Century of Naval Intelligence. British use of trawlers is the topic of Richard J. Aldrich and Mason Redfearn’s “The Perfect Cover: British Intelligence, the Soviet Fleet and Distant Water Trawler Operations, 1963–1974” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 12 no. 3)