Russia faces hurdles in refurbishing scientific fleet

Published on
January 8, 2021

Russia has introduced plans to undertake a modernization of its scientific fleet, with the goal of obtaining more accurate stock and biomass counts and predictions for catch totals.

Ultimately, the goal is to boost the country's fishing ambitions, which extend beyond Russia's own waters. 

Since 2014, when Russia banned food imports from many Western countries – a ban it recently extended through late 2021 – Russia has made a huge effort to reform and burnish its its fisheries sector. That strategy was delineated in 2019 in the Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries' release of its Strategy for Fishery Development 2030, which outlined the country's aims of doubling seafood export revenue, increasing the national catch to 5.4 million metric tons (MT), and expanding Russian fishing operations to new and more distant parts of the world's oceans. 

To achieve these goals, the Russian government launched an incentive program to renew its fleet and processing facilities, encouraged the modernization of its ports, and poured effort and investment into its aquaculture sector.  

A further goal has recently been added to this effort: the upgrading of Russia's scientific fleet. In recent years, scientific forecasts have failed to get close in their predictions for several of the country's most important fisheries, including the 2020 salmon season in Russia's Far East, which ended with a total catch far below expectations. In response, Russia decided to launch new approach to forecasting its salmon season. 

With nearly all the country’s seafood sourced from wild-catch fisheries – Russia's aquaculture sector is still miniscule, despite its own investment campaign – Russia's government has decided to invest in improving its sourcing for the information that forms the foundation of successful fisheries, such as data on stocks, their sizes, locations, and migration patterns.

Russia’s fishery science is wholly concentrated in the state-owned Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) under the command of the Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries. Its 28 branches contain 5,000staff disbursed among key fishing regions across the country. VNIRO calculates the total allowable catch (TAC) for 650 species in the Russian economic zone, 120 species in international waters, and more than 1,000 species for Russian internal waters. The institute carries out more than 1,500 expeditions a year to help fisheries estimate population counts for pollock and salmon and predict the size and timing of upcoming fishing seasons. Recently, VNIRO’s efforts have led to the discovery of new commercial stocks of pollock in the Chukchi Sea and opilio crab in the Kara Sea, which helped to increase the country's total allowable catch for both species.

Russia sports a long history of actively engaging fisheries science in its seafood sector. During the Soviet era, research ships accompanied fishing ships at sea to help them locate large schools of fish in real-time. At the time, the catch in the Russian Far East averaged around 5 million MT a year, while in recent years, the country's total catch has recently dropped to average 3.5 million MT.

Though Russia still sports the largest national fishery science fleet in the world, VNIRO's 19 survey and research vessels are now in need of repair and refurbishment, according to VNIRO Director Kirill Kolonchin. At an average age of 27 years old, with a wear-out rate of 80 percent, they can no longer provide the scientific capacity Russian fisheries require, despite spending more than half of each year at sea, Kolinchin said. The equipment onboard also lags behind what more modern technology offers.

“All our vessels are nearing the end of the expected useful lifetimes,” Kolonchin said in an interview with Fishnews media agency. “Their repair gets more and more expensive, the level of equipment on board is rather low in comparison to existing technologies. One new ship can replace two ships we have now.”

The aging of the scientific fleet also carries with it the risk that Russia will not be able to comply with bilateral governmental and international agreements. In some internationally-governed fisheries, there are significant scientific requirements on stock monitoring and management, so a lack of research capabilities could lead to Russia’s exclusion. According to VNIRO estimates, the lack of scientific capacity results in Russia losing out on around 250,000 MT of catch a year, primarily in pollock and herring fisheries.

The problem is nothing new. “The Strategy for Fishery Science Development 2020,” released over a decade ago, envisaged the construction of 27 new scientific vessels by 2017. So far, few of those research vessels have even been designed, and none have been launched. 

In late 2018, Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries Head Ilya Shestakov proposed the Russian government finance the construction of five medium-range and three long-range vessels to avert the total loss of the science fleet. The idea was approved, even though it was an extraordinary task, as the proposal carried the requirement that the ships be build domestically. Neither in the Soviet era, nor in modern Russia, has a scientific fishery ship ever built in the country. All the ships currently in use were made abroad. Making the task more complicated is the requirements of the ships, including low noise levels and the ability to work all over the world's oceans under any conditions – from tropical heat to Arctic cold.   

Three of the planned five medium-range vessels will be used in the Russian Far East, one will be deployed in the Northern Fishery basin, and the final vessel will patrol the Western Fishery basin in the Baltic Sea. One of the long-range vessels will be deployed in the Atlantic Ocean, and the other will be staged in the Russian Far East.

In late 2020, VNIRO awarded a contract for the construction of two medium-sized ships through a tender to the Nevsky Shipyard, a subsidiary of the United Shipbuilding Corporation. According to the tender conditions, the vessels will be designed for a wide range of research, both fishery and oceanographic. With a planned crew of 26, the ships will be outfitted with labs for hydrobiology and hydrology, an analytic laboratory, fish processing capacity, a conference hall, and a gym. The planned dimensions are 54.1 meters long by 13.6 meters wide, with an engine output of 3,200 kWh and a maximum speed of no less than 14 knots. The cost of the two vessels – to be delivered by late 2022 – is RUB 5.9 billion (USD 78.8 million, EUR 64.6 million). 

Tenders for the construction of the other three ships have not yet been announced, and their future is largely dependent on whether the government decides to finance them. Even though they were planned for construction in 2020, none of the long-range vessels were laid out last year, as money for the construction has not yet been allocated by the Ministry of Finance. After Shestakov voiced his concerns about the absence of financing during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in late October 2020, Putin reportedly promised to “handle it.” 

Even with adequate financing, another problem with the refurbishment plan has emerged, as national shipyards have fallen far behind in their construction timelines. Under the national investment quota incentive program, shipyards received an influx of new business, but without experience in building fishing vessels, delays have emerged, and several shipyards have broken agreed-upon timelines for the ships currently under construction.

In his meeting with Putin, Shestakov said the construction backlog now is one to two years, depending on the shipyard. The delays are a problem for which a solution has still not been found, Shestakov said.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Reporting from Saint Petersburg, Russia

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