The USS Petrel, a Navy submarine rescue ship, was about 100 miles off the Rhode Island coast last August when the sighting occurred.
An order went from the bridge, the crew was directed to stand by and the 252-foot-long Petrel was swung around to come alongside two strings of bobbing buoys.
The Petrel was on a high-security mission in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 19, but this pause on the high seas had nothing to do with that.
It could have been called Operation Big Claw.
The buoys marked two strings of 100 lobster traps that Karl Ek, a commercial fisherman from North Kingstown, R. I., had placed in the Atlantic.
At the direction of the Petrel's officers, the crew pulled the buoys and traps from the sea, removed an estimated 50 lobsters and dumped the empty traps back over the side.
Before the Petrel left the scene, however, officers photographed their catch, and, apparently, several of Ek's marked buoys stayed on board the Petrel. The lobsters -- Karl Ek's lobsters -- were sent to the galley fro preparation.
The USS Petrel, meanwhile, headed back to tis home port at Charleston, SC., its classified mission completed in November.
But word of the seafood tastes of the Petrel's officers reached higherups in the U. S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet, based at Norfolk, and naval investigators were assigned to the case.
The Navy Department in Washington will say only that an incident of Block Island Sound, in which it is alleged that 18 commercial lobster traps were raised by the Petrel, is under investigation.
A Navy spokesman said that two probes are being conducted, one by the Naval Investigative Service and the other under the judge-advocate division to determine if punishable actions took place aboard the Petrel.
The spokesman said that recommendations have not yet been made as to what disciplinary action, if any, might be taken.
The Petrelhs captain, Cmdr. Eugene A Haselman, and its executive officer, Lt. Michael Tavares, were routinely relieved of their commands and reassigned to staff duty at Charleston last month. The Navy spokesman said the action was not related to Operation Big claw.
Details obtained independently of the Navy provide a clearer picture of what happened off the Rhode Island shore after the Petrel's captain spotted the buoys.
According to these sources, Haselman and Tavares directed the ship to move alongside the buoys and then ordered the crewmen to hoist Karl Ek's gear onto the deck.
"Many of the crew were outraged by this blatant and remorseless conduct that took a man's livelihood and made them involuntary parties to a criminal act," a Navy source said.
After the Petrel reached Charleston, an official complaint was made and an investigation was begun last month. All 100 crewmen and five officers were interviewed, a source said, and Navy probers collected photos, Ek's buoys and the ship's log, which detailed the Petrel's movements around the lobster pots, as evidence.
When Karl Ek discovered his buoys were missing and at least 600 feet of line was gone from where he had set his traps, he thought it was just another of those unexplainable losses that happen to lobstermen all the time.
Then he was approached by Navy investigators. They brought photographs and asked if he could identify the lobster gear shown spread out on the Petrel's deck. The buoys carried EK's markings.
"The Nevy is very embarrassed about this," EK said, "and while they haven't actually promised restitution, they indicated they will get back to me."
"It is really incredible, very discouraging," EK continued. "As hard a business as this is, with all the normal problems, I have this happen. If you can't trust your own Navy, who can you trust?"
Had EK retrieved his lobsters, he would have sold them for about $3.50 a pound to Bryan Handrigan, owner of the Hnadrigan Seafood Co. at Galilee, R. I.
Handrigan said that he, too, had lobster pots set on line in the Atlantic at the time the Petrel was in the region off Rhode Island.
"I just don't know if my gear was tampered with," he said. "I had about 1,000 lobster pots out ther, and I only salvaged 300."
Even though the law and fisherman's honor makes robbing of another's traps a no-no, as Handrigan put it, such incidents occur from time to time.
"You worry about the Japs and the Russians coming in, but when it's your own Navy, well..;" Handrigan said.
EK noted that, seven years ago, in his first big lobstering venture in the Atlantic, he put out about 700 traps, with buoys and line -- a $40,000 investment -- and then lost it all to a Russian ship that swept through.
"I complained and complained but I never got anywhere" he said. "If you're lucky, you lose just a little. You lose a lot, it's a real kick in the teeth."
After the Petrel's Operation Big Claw, EK never recovered his two strings -- trawls, they are called -- of lobster pots. "I was unhappy because it was a serve loss," he said.