Coast Guard sets limits to ship approach

Floatplane operators, cruise lines seek clarification

Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

To protect cruise ships from terrorist attacks, the U.S. Coast Guard proposes new rules to prevent other boats from closely approaching the ships in Alaska waters.

Fishing groups, floatplane operators and cruise lines are among many businesses trying to get a handle on the rules' repercussions for marine traffic in Southeast Alaska's tight channels and small harbors.

"It's definitely going to have an impact, but we are not sure to what extent," said Mike Stedman, operations director for Wings of Alaska, an airline that launches floatplanes near Juneau's cruise ship docks.

The new rule, proposed March 9, would create a 100-yard, no-entry security zone around ships carrying more than 500 passengers while they are in transit and a 25-yard zone when they are moored or anchored.

The Coast Guard would require boats operating within 250 yards of cruise ships to comply with speed restrictions and other navigation traffic orders.

Coast Guard Lt. Gary Koehler, chief of port operations for Southeast Alaska, said his agency would provide exemptions to the rules in cases where they create a bottleneck or restrict commerce.

That's important at Ketchikan's small harbors, said Rick Erickson, operations manager for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska. He added, "We need to be able to figure out, within each of the ports, how this will impact the cruise lines."

If the new rules for cruise ships restrict public or commercial use of the harbors, "it becomes everyone's problem," Erickson said.

"I think (the Coast Guard) is going about this the right way," said Kirby Day, director of shore operations in Juneau for Princess Tours. "But we need to get together and find out how it affects everybody. In the little communities we have (in Southeast Alaska), a lot of small boats approach ships in the harbor."

The proposal, up for public comment until April 8, is the latest in a series of new federal security measures for boats and harbors across the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The threat of maritime attacks is real as evidenced by the attack on the USS Cole and the subsequent attack in 2002 against a tank vessel off the coast of Yemen," wrote Jim Olsen, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, in the rules' March 9 Federal Register notice.

"It's pretty much a national initiative," Koehler said. "Most areas with cruise ship traffic either have (security zones) in place or they are working on them."

Koehler said he realizes the rule will present some difficulties in Southeast Alaska, where there are narrow entrances to some harbors and tight shipping channels.

The Coast Guard will enforce the rules with on-scene patrols, and penalties for violation will range from a warning to criminal prosecution, Koehler said.

Leaders of two fishing organizations said Tuesday that they didn't know about the proposed rules until contacted by a reporter.

Dale Kelly, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said she is disappointed that the Coast Guard has not contacted fishing organizations about the proposal.

"I hope they will educate first, and not just bust people," she said.

Koehler said the Coast Guard does plan to educate people about the rule. A public meeting is not planned at this point, he said.

Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, said she wasn't informed about the rules either. She said some fishing vessels would have trouble maintaining a 100-yard distance from cruise ships in certain Southeast Alaska waters.

"There are a lot of places where cruise ships pass gillnetters within 100 yards," she said. "My automatic instinct is that there may be a problem."

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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