Chamber updated on 2010 Coast Guard operations

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

The commander of the 17th Coast Guard District told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce just how busy the Coast Guard was in 2010, and what that means for the state.

MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE
MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin went through a variety of statistics illustrating Coast Guard operations throughout the state, rather than concentrating on its operations in the Arctic. He demonstrated how these operations, such as spill prevention and cruise ship safety, directly impact Southeast.

As far as statewide economy goes, there were 1,840 Coast Guard members here in 2010, which constituted a $250 million initial impact through salaries, purchases and other finances. Of that Coast Guard makeup, 250 were in Juneau.

He added, however, a large number of Coast Guardsmen were lost in the state with the shutdown of the Loran station.

The Coast Guard also showed the Chamber how it’s done in one of its primary areas: search and rescue. In 2010, the Guard in Alaska saved 142 lives, assisted 872 persons in distress, and protected $58 million in property. There were also 1,100 Coast Guard Auxiliary safety checks.

“Safety is a major concern of mine,” Colvin told the Empire. “I’m concerned about the ‘oh my God, we’re going to die’ cases. That’s first and foremost. We’re making sure people are not going to die out on the ocean.”

In relation to this is the Guard’s medical evacuations, a strong need for which lies in rural areas.

“In wintertime, we probably end up doing one or two a week in Southeast Alaska,” Colvin said.

He said the rescue efforts are aided by close working relationships with the Alaska National Guard, the Russian Border Guard and state and local law enforcement.

Much of the Coast Guard’s safety measures directly impact fisheries. There were 445 fisheries boardings last year, 693 commercial fishing vessel safety boardings, 649 services for aids to navigation and 700 fishermen trained in coldwater survival.

Also on the fishing side, Colvin said his staff has reported about 50 crab vessels sank between 1992 and 2005 but none since.

“Stability has been a real key factor,” he said.

He said a real danger to this is illegal and unreported fishing, which can also lead to problems for scientists when reporting an accurate sustainable biomass.

Colvin also described its role in salmon protection by using satellite intelligence and other information along with agreements with other countries to aid in driftnets.

In addressing the Coast Guard’s role in protecting cruise passengers, he said 2010 was 100 percent successful in ensuring cruise ships complied with federal checks and none hit any endangering objects, such as rocks or released oil. The Coast Guard also does ship inspections to aid in this.

Another major field for the Coast Guard is protecting the environment. The Guard safely moved 206 million barrels of oil last year and responded to 101 pollution incidents. A local example is the removal of more than 120,000 gallons of oil from the long-sunken Princess Kathleen.

Colvin said a big issue on his mind is oil spill prevention. He said the Coast Guard was completely successful this year moving oil in and out of Valdez and that no tankers ran aground or spilled.

The Guard is also currently in the process of attempting to increase safe vessel traffic in the Bering Strait. The Bering Strait Port Access Routing Study is currently out for public comment and the Guard is communicating with local communities and First Nations and would eventually like to coordinate with Russia. The result would be safe vessel routes that are listed on Bering Strait charts that are similar to existing vessel fairways in Unimak Pass.

Some of the Guard’s major challenges in working in Alaska included the harsh operating environment, extreme weather conditions and long distances. Colvin explained that Alaska 6,640 miles of coastline, more than the rest of the country.

Another issue brought up by a Chamber member was that of pirates, to which Colvin responded is a problem “not even close” to being under control. He said that although he believes pirates will be a continuing problem, the Coast Guard broadcasts where they are known to operate and warns mariners to be careful.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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