By Lieutenant Commander Ross Baxter, RD RNR (ret.)
Lieutenant Commander Steve Collins walked up the wide oak-panelled staircase of Admiralty House, thinking it could be his last time. After 30 years in the Royal Navy, forced retirement was a distinct possibility having been passed over for promotion three times already. The thought that his next draft could be his last filled him with a creeping melancholia he found difficult to dismiss.
At the top of the stair he moved slowly to the third door, pausing to check his watch. Seeing he was on time, he opened the heavy wooden door and walked through.
“Morning, sir,” came the cheery voice of the rating manning the front desk.
“Morning,” Collins replied, thinking how young the rating looked, despite being a Leading Seaman. “Lieutenant Commander Collins, here to see Captain Peterson.”
“Go straight in, sir,” smiled the Leading Seaman.
Collins nodded and opened the door from the anteroom into the main office. Captain Peterson sat behind a large desk in front of the window, reading a newspaper.
“Ah, come in, Steve,” smiled Peterson, standing and extending his hand.
Collins shook the hand, which felt cold, and took the proffered seat. “Thank you, sir.”
“How’s your time at the School of Leadership going?” Peterson asked.
He wanted to say how dull he was finding being an instructor for junior navigators, but decided against it. “Fine thanks, although I’m hoping my next role will be more operational. Now that I’ve been passed over again, I’m very conscious my next draft may be my last. So, I’ve a lot hanging on this meeting, and I’m hopeful you’ve got something good for me.”
“Straight to the point, I see,” Peter’s smiled wryly. “Well, as you know, to make Commander at your fourth and final shot before going out of zone is usually a big challenge. You really need to shine on your next draft, to make sure that it’s not your final one before retirement. But I may be able to help you with that. There is a role with Fishery Protection which, if you play your cards right, could finally land you your brass hat, and a significant extension to your career.”
“Fishery Protection?” asked Collins, despondently. With just five small vessels in the whole fleet, all based in home waters, he felt the Fishery Protection Squadron offered few opportunities for progression, or for enjoyment.
“Don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Post-Brexit, and with diminishing fish stocks and the increasing challenges of global food security, Fishery Protection is becoming increasingly more important,” said Peterson.
“But I thought next year’s defence budget is cutting the fleet from five to four?” countered Collins.
“It is, which is where this new role, your role, comes in,” answered Peterson.
“But I don’t want to be stuck in an office or another classroom,” explained Collins. “I’m after an operational role.”
“I can promise you that you can’t get a more operational role than this,” said Peterson, suddenly stern. “We have a problem, a very delicate problem, which we want you to help the Fishery Protection Squadron with.”
“The announcement to reduce the Fishery Protection Squadron from five to four vessels was based on offering the appearance of a back-down to Europe in the post-Brexit negotiations. But actually it was because of a scientific advance which would mean that Britain can police its fishing waters without the need for ships at all, at a fraction of the cost.”
“When it comes to the navy and costs, ideas like that usually turn out to be too good to be true,” offered Collins, trying not to sound too cynical.
Captain Peterson frowned. “Well, the initial results are causing some concern, and we want you to help investigate what is happening.”
“What is the scientific advance?” Collins asked.
“Positional locators placed in a number of cod. When a fish with one of these locators is caught, we can track it to the port of landing, and therefore easily check if it was caught in our territorial fishing waters, and by who.”
Collins regarded Peterson quizzically. “Surely that’s not new technology; people have been trying that for years? It doesn’t work as the fish returned to the seas have no shoal to return to, and spent the rest of their lives swimming aimlessly around on their own. Fishing fleets aim to catch shoals, not lonesome individuals, so few ever get caught.”
“Correct, that was the case. The advance which we’ve made is twofold. The GPS transmitter has been miniaturised so it’s now a tiny silicon chip, impossible to detect and easy to place in the fish with no detriment to it. We have the Chinese to thank for that. But the key advance was developed by neuroscientists here in the UK, who managed to create a mix of endorphins in the brain chemistry of the fish to actually change its basic behaviour. They fitted a tiny reservoir to the transmitter containing a concoction of numerous endorphins and norepinephrine. The device is implemented, and the chemicals make re-joining a shoal a prime objective for the fish. The fish joins the largest shoal it can find, the fishing vessels chase the largest shoal they can find, the nano-transmitter tells us who caught the fish, and we prosecute the foreign vessel if it caught the fish in British waters.”
“Effectively making the Fishery Protection Squadron redundant,” cut in Collins.
“Allowing the Royal Navy to spend its budget in other areas, rather than global food security,” Peterson corrected him.
“Well, it sounds simple enough,” conceded Collins. “So, what’s the concern you want me to investigate?”
Commander Peterson paused, and took a long breath. “Three months ago, the test batch of 100 cod, enhanced and fitted with the nano-transmitters, were released by HMS Trent in the North Sea, at the edge of UK’s territorial limit. So far, ten have been caught, 12 died, and 78 remain at large in the North Sea. The ten were all caught together, by a Norwegian-registered vessel, just over four weeks ago. They were caught in Norwegian waters, approximately 40 nautical miles south-west of Bergen, where they were later landed.”
“So, they were caught legally?”
“Indeed,” replied Peterson, his face starting to redden slightly. “Our concern relates to what happened after they were landed. The tracking devises show that nine were sold at market to a local fish restaurant, and one was sold to a private buyer. The nine devices all went dead over the following two days, as the fish were cooked in the restaurant. However, the tenth device is still visible, and for the last three weeks we’ve been watching it move erratically around the streets of Bergen.”
Collins looked blankly at the Commander.
“We believe the private buyer somehow ingested the tiny transmitter and reservoir of chemicals, and the chemicals may be having an effect on the person’s behaviour,” said Peterson.
Collins scratched his head, becoming increasingly puzzled. “And you want me to check out this person? Why not just talk with the Norwegians?”
“Because 78 fish remain to be caught. They could be caught by any nation. The EU nations would have a field day if it affected any of their nationals, and what if the fish were caught by American boats? It would do untold damage to our post-Brexit negotiations, upset our NATO friends, and drag the reputation of Britain through the mud. Norway is just the start; depending on what you find there we may need you to lead a number of damage limitation exercises, lasting many months.”
“But why me, and not MI5, MI6, or the Foreign Office?” asked Collins.
The redness in Peterson’s face increased. “Because it’s a RN-only initiative. It was developed at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, as a strictly single service project. No one else knows about it, and if they did, imagine the embarrassment for the Navy!”
Collins nodded. “When do you want me to start?”
“Right now,” said Peters, clearly relieved that Collins was on board. “You’ll get a full briefing this afternoon, and your flight leaves from Heathrow at 1830 tonight.”
After a breakfast which turned out to be a little more healthy than he hoped, Collins walked out of the hotel into bright morning sunshine, the light playing off the clear water of Bergen’s picturesque harbour. He switched on his navy-issue cellphone, selecting the tracker app installed the previous evening. The tracker quickly located its target, zooming in on the map to show a blue dot located half mile east of his current position.
Given the weather he decided to walk rather than take a taxi, and set off at a brisk pace across the busy harbour, thronged with tourists and locals going about their business. The direction took him through wide streets in the direction of the university. After checking the app again, he saw the blue dot marking his quarry appeared to be in a crowded café on the street opposite the main university library. Adjusting the resolution to see how easy it would be pinpoint a person within the café, he raised his eyebrows in surprise at the high level of accuracy given by the app. He paused to double-check the position of the person, then walked inside to order a coffee at the counter.
Waiting for the barista to prepare his drink gave him time to look around and locate the source of the signal. Despite the café being very busy, pinpointing the table was relatively easy, the signal clearly indicating a table towards the far wall. Three people sat at opposite sides of the table, a young student couple heavily engaged in a conversation, and a middle-aged woman sat on the other end cradling a large mug.
His coffee finally came, and Collins looked for a space as near to the target as possible. With most seats occupied his choice was limited, but four students stood to leave at a table close by and he quickly moved to take a seat. With a clear view of the table by the wall, he watched the three occupants surreptitiously whilst pretending to look at his phone.
The student couple left after around ten minutes, but the blue dot remained steadfastly fixed in position. He gave up on the coffee, it being far too strong and bitter for his taste, although took pretend sips whilst glancing at the woman sat on the nearby table. Guessing her to be in her late thirties, he noted how she looked dishevelled, despite her clothing being up-market. She seemed agitated, possibly waiting for someone, her eyes constantly darting around the busy café. A waitress collected her cup and asked if she wanted another, but the woman shook her head.
Time passed slowly, and he watched a succession of customers join both his and her tables, drink their coffee, and leave. The waitress collected his half empty cup, and he ordered a tea. Still the woman sat without a drink, her eyes continuing to flit nervously around the crowded room. She spoke to no one, just sat, surrounded by people.
As Collins drained his second tea, the café started to noticeably get quieter. He guessed that mid-morning lectures were starting at the university, and the clientele were leaving to join. Suddenly, the woman stood, and strode quickly out of the café into the street. Collins followed at a jog, seeing the woman turn right out of the door toward the harbour. He followed at a discrete distance, watching her walk quickly, steering in toward larger groups of people as she went. A few minutes later and she passed through the large revolving doors of the main shopping mall. Following her inside, Collins trailed as she seemed to move aimlessly round the three floors of shops.
After almost an hour Collins began to tire, both physically and mentally. He started to think how he could engage her in conversation, and as to what exactly he would say. As she made her tenth circuit of the third floor he moved closer, but she cut to the left and down two flights of stairs to the side exit. Following her out, he was pleased to see her enter a bar, just outside the fish market. Inside, her saw her sidle over to a raised table and sit, leaving an empty chair between herself and a group of three women in business suits who were deep in conversation. They ignored her, and she sat as she had before, her eyes darting around the clustered group of customers.
Collins moved to the counter and ordered himself a small beer, inwardly wincing at the price. Clutching the beer, he moved over to the table to stand opposite his quarry.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” he asked innocently, pointing to the empty seat opposite the woman.
The woman looked up at him in puzzlement, and Collins wondered if she was one of the few Norwegians who could not speak English.
She paused a moment, as if trying to process what he was asking. Then she nodded. “Please, help yourself.”
“Thanks,” nodded Collins, placing his small beer on the table and taking a seat. “I’ve been on my feet all morning; it’s nice to sit down.”
She nodded, looking like she wanted to say something but remaining quiet.
“Bergen is such a beautiful city,” said Collins, to fill the silence. “I’m here as I’m a chef; I’m hoping to get some inspiration regarding local Norwegian recipes with fish.”
Again she nodded, and again did not speak. Collins noticed how emaciated she looked, her hollow eyes still darting around the crowded bar.
“Do you like fish?” he asked.
Her eyes stopped moving, instead fixing him with a puzzled stare.
“I was wondering if you know of any local or family recipes I could use back in my London restaurant regarding cod?” Collins pushed, struggling with her unresponsiveness.
“I usually make sushi,” she replied, her words slow and drawn-out.
Her account was slight, and her English obviously good, but the drawl as she spoke indicted something seriously amiss.
“Are you…okay?” he asked.
“No,” she answered.
Collins paused to let her continue, be she remained silent, her eyes continuing to flick around the bar.
“What’s the matter?” asked Collins.
She looked at him for a few moments. “I don’t like to be alone anymore. I need to be where people are. All the time.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Yes. But she hasn’t helped; she said I had anxiety and prescribed me some drugs.”
“Have the drugs helped?” he questioned, already knowing the answer.
“Have you seen the doctor since?”
“I haven’t got time. I need to be surrounded by people.”
Collins rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He knew there was little else he needed to know, but felt guilty about leaving her. He fumbled for his wallet and took out a plain business card, on which was written only his name and cell number. “If you don’t get better, I know a doctor who will be able to help. It’ll be free of charge. Phone call me if you need help.”
She took the proffered card and stared at him blankly as he rose from his chair and left the bar.
Once outside, Collins walked over to an empty bench overlooking Bergen’s pretty harbour. He sat and punched a number into his phone.
“Collins?” came Captain Peter’s voice.
“Yes, sir,” Collins answered. “I found the contact in Norway, and there is no doubt that she has ingested the tracker, and that the cocktail of endorphins and norepinephrine is affecting her.”
“No doubt at all, and affecting her severely,” replied Collins. “Given her state, it’s likely she may end up in a mortuary soon. Are there still 78 fish remaining to be caught?”
“The only safe way forward is for the Royal Navy to catch those fish. We need to charter a number of fishing vessels and chase those shoals. If a few of the transmitters and hormone reservoirs turn up at autopsies, it won’t be long before all this gets out.”
“Chartering a fleet of fishing vessels will cost us a bloody fortune!” Peter’s voice sounded angrily in Collin’s ear. “The whole point of this was to decrease defence spending on food security, not to spend more!”
“Well, you did say reducing the number of Fishery Protection vessels was all about allowing the Royal Navy to spend its budget in other areas. But it looks like the price of fish in the catering budget has just gone up.”
Ross Baxter joined the British Royal Naval Reserve as a Junior Radio Operator in 1981. Commissioned in 1986, he specialized in naval control and guidance of shipping. His career saw many exercises and a number of periods of full time reserve service, with travel to places like Chile, the U.S., and the Gulf. He retired as Executive Officer of HMS Sherwood in 2011. He now heads up logistics projects for a major UK pharmaceutical distributor. Married to a Norwegian and with two Anglo-Viking kids, he now lives in Derby, England.
Featured Image: “Fishing Boat” by Yoann Fontaine (via Artstation)