The Marine Exchange of Alaska provides a service so fundamental to boating safety most might assume the U.S. Coast Guard, or another governmental agency, runs it. The exchange tracks and collects data on vessels equipped with an onboard tracking system; it does for boats what the Federal Aviation Administration does for planes — and it’s run as a non-profit by a couple of retired Coasties.
The exchange is housed in a modest building near the Juneau entrance of the Douglas Bridge. Inside is a data and tracking center that’s staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are numerous flat screens on the walls; one shows the location of every traceable vessel off Alaska’s coasts and even some off the coasts of eastern Russia, Washington and Oregon.
It’s an operation that Executive Director Capt. Ed Page wants to share with the public. Page has plans to construct a new facility that would house not only the exchange, but also a visitor’s center that would educate people on what the exchange does and on the maritime industry in Alaska. The City and Borough of Juneau has already donated the land and, during the last session, the Legislature gave the exchange $1 million toward the new building. Page had hoped to break ground in May, but funding he anticipated from a Department of Transportation grant didn’t come through.
Trying to prevent deaths, oil spills
Page spent 30 years in the Coast Guard before creating the exchange in 2001 along with Paul Fuhs, who now serves on the board of directors, and Jeff Thompson. Since its creation, the exchange has expanded to include about a hundred transmitter sites along Alaska’s coast. Bill Benning, a 25-year Coast Guard veteran, is the exchange’s Chief Technical Officer.
Page said the exchange was inspired by stories of maritime accidents that caused either an oil spill or death.
“One of the saddest stories was when I has pull 43 bodies out of the water in Vancouver in 1973,” Page said. “I’ve had a couple sobering events where I said, ‘Gee, it would have been nice if we’d had better tracking system.’
“Another one was the Exxon Valdez. They wouldn’t have gone out of the channel if an alarm went off and the Coast Guard called up and said, ‘Hey Captain, what’s going on?’” Page said.
The 1989 disaster spilled hundreds of thousand of barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Numerous factors were found to have played a role in the spill; one was that the Exxon Valdez was operating outside the normal sea lane at the time of accident.
Vessels equipped with an automatic identification system, or AIS, send out frequent signals that update their location. Attached to the signal is information about the vessel’s course, speed, name, rate of turn, dimensions and destination. The system can even determine the closest point of approach, or the point at which two vessels will collide.
“We’re basically providing a safety net through the use of technology,” Page said.
All data from the exchange’s transmitters is sent via cellular or satellite technology to Juneau and then shared with the exchange’s subscribers. The exchange also provides access to tracking collected by transmitters around the world. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses the exchange for their enforcement efforts. Businesses like Trident Seafoods use the exchange to see where all their vessels are in relation to the nearest processors and to monitor where their fleet is fishing. The National Park Service uses the exchange to monitor the speed of cruise ships going through Glacier Bay. Lloyd’s of London uses it to track their shipping operations around the world. The exchange’s biggest client is the Coast Guard, which doesn’t have technology anything like what the exchange provides, Page said.
“If I had a switch to flip that would shut this whole thing down, the Coast Guard wouldn’t know the exact location of any of these boats,” Page said. “We’re probably one of the biggest private vessel tracking systems in the world.”
Not all data is shared with all subscribers, Page said. While the Coast Guard can see where all vessels are, Page said settings are customized for each subscriber so one fishing vessel isn’t alerted to the location of a competing vessel.
The exchange has transmitters on the North Slope, all over Western Alaska, in the Aleutians, throughout Southcentral, down through Southeast. Several in Washington and Oregon.
“We’re probably getting to our saturation point,” Page said. “Some of our transmitters we’re taking down because technology is getting better and we’re over covering some places.”
“As cellular technology builds out, it makes itself more available for these kinds of things,” Benning added.
The exchange is also responsible for installing another hundred or so transmitter sites in the Lower 48, on the east, west and gulf coasts. Those sites were eventually handed over to local or regional organizations to maintain.
Finding ways to improve the system
The exchange is an organization that has defied the standard way of operating and that’s what makes it work, Page said. Organizations researching the Arctic, shipping patterns or maritime traffic in Alaska all go to the exchange for data, Page said.
“I’m sharing this with the state. I’m sharing it with the maritime industry. I’m sharing it with the (non-governmental organizations),” Page said. “It’s a paradigm shift that some people can’t deal with. I get the information and it’s their job to act on it.
“We’ve done port studies in Juneau, Anchorage and Dutch Harbor. I’ve actually had these defense contractors come up to me and try to take over, but I don’t really need to do that”
What the exchange does need to do, Page said, is continue exploring better ways to use technology and to keep improving.
After the communications company GCI called the exchange one day asking for help determining where one of their underwater cable lines had been damaged, the exchange learned that they could also monitor the fiber optic lines that stretch from Alaska to Oregon.
The exchange is currently planning to install weather stations with their transmitters. While weather stations are traditionally installed and maintained by the National Weather Service (NWS), Page said the exchange is working to develop less expensive and more reliable solutions. He said the NWS and the Coast Guard are participating in the effort.
“The mariners complain that there’s not enough (weather stations)” Page said. “They say they go down too often and sometimes they’re down for months at a time.”
The exchange is also working on developing portable AIS technology that whaler crews can use to be more visible as shipping traffic increases in the Arctic.
“We don’t need to be in the business of building these things,” Page said. “We just need to show that it can be done.”