Marine Exchange earns public service award

Coast Guard praises exchange for robust vessel tracking system

Posted: Monday, February 08, 2010

For its support of U.S. Coast Guard maritime domain awareness and industry stewardship, the Marine Exchange of Alaska, based in Juneau, received one of the highest civilian awards offered by the Coast Guard - the Meritorious Public Service Award.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, 17th District commander, presented the Coast Guard's second-highest public service award Thursday at the Marine Exchange of Alaska facility, located near the Juneau-Douglas bridge above Juneau Electronics.

Marine Exchange of Alaska executive director Capt. Ed Page, a retired Guardsman, said the fact that the Coast Guard recognizes the exchange is extremely important.

"I call it the good-housekeeping seal of approval," he said. "The Coast Guard really is trying to add maritime safety and environmental protection, and they're ultimately considered the premiere maritime service, so their endorsement means a lot to us. It means we really are helping out."

Marine Exchange of Alaska is a nonprofit organization formed about 10 years ago to provide information, communications and services to the maritime community along Alaska's 33,000 miles of coastline.

Its Automated Identification System (AIS), cited by the Coast Guard as "robust and critical," tracks how fast and what direction vessels within the system are traveling. The goal is to prevent collisions and groundings, ensure compliance and maintain safe, efficient and environmentally responsible maritime operations.

"A lot of what motivates us is the fact that we're providing something that's going to save lives, protect the environment and increase efficiency," Page said. "That's what we really want to have, is end up saving some lives."

Page, who has served the Coast Guard for 30 years, believes that as the AIS expands, more lives and vessels will be spared.

"I saw a lot of cases that went bad, a lot of cases where people died, and I thought if we had better information, we would've saved lives," he said. "Having known where the Exxon Valdez was, it wouldn't have gone aground. So now, that can't happen. The Coast Guard will see that and can stop it from happening. ... That's going to be the biggest return for us."

Indeed, the AIS proved vital last October, when the Fish and Game research vessel Kestrel came to the aid of the fishing boat Equinox in Sumner Straight.

The Equinox had lost propulsion and was heading toward the rocks in 40-knot winds from the east. With the power still on, Equinox could see Kestrel on its AIS, heading toward Wrangell Narrows to its Petersburg homeport.

"They saw Kestrel right here from this position, radioed them for help, and Kestrel said, 'OK we're on our way, top speed' - 12 knots," said business manager John Adams. "And it took three hours to get back there, about 36 miles away, but the nearest Coast Guard cutter was seven hours away. Otherwise, they might have had to launch helicopters and do all kinds of things."

Alaska's network is comprised of 70-plus receiving stations, providing more than 200,000 square miles of coverage extending from the eastern North Slope community of Kaktovik, west to Adak and south to Ketchikan.

"It's not often Alaska gets to be on the cutting edge of things," said President Paul Fuhs, one of the founders.

In fact, Marine Exchange of Alaska is scheduled to install AIS sites in the Galapagos Islands this spring. And it hopes to build more than 100 more stations in the state this year.

"With the state, maritime industry and the Coast Guard all working together with the same goals it's important," Page said. "It invigorates all of us and gets us even more motivated to do even more good things, and we're not done yet."

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