Alaska editorial: Don't weaken ocean ranger provision in initiative

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Alaska voters approved a citizens' cruise ship initiative last August that included a provision to put ocean rangers aboard ships while in state waters. The marine engineers, approved by the state, would monitor shipboard operations for pollution discharge and record-keeping to help keep Alaska's air and water clean.

But the House Transportation Committee, chaired by Ketchikan Republican Rep. Kyle Johansen, has taken the ocean out of ocean rangers and turned them into port police, who would board cruise ships only while in port. They'd be able to read logs and question the crew but would not have first-hand knowledge of operations between ports of call.

This isn't just tweaking the initiative. This strips one of its provisions. Legislators should reject the House Transportation Committee's amendments to the law.

The committee's action would make the program about as effective as telling onboard commercial fisheries observers to monitor catch and processing operations but to do it from shore.

Part of the argument against onboard ocean rangers is that the initiative's tax of $4 per passenger for the program wouldn't raise enough to pay for 24-hour coverage on the cruise. So what? The initiative didn't call for 24-hour staffing; it just said put monitors on the ships to make sure they are operating to the state's satisfaction in state waters.

The tax will raise about $3.8 million a year. So the Department of Environmental Conservation's marching orders are clear: Give Alaska the best program it can for $3.8 million. Don't design a round-the-clock $5 million program and then throw up your hands and say we can't afford it, which is what DEC has done. And don't use the $5 million estimate as an excuse to leave the monitors standing on the dock.

Yes, the cruise ship initiative was not a perfect piece of work. It overreached in some areas, lacked workable details in others, and was motivated too much by punishing companies for past sins. Setting up the onboard observers' program is one of its missing details.

No reasonable person expects a complete ocean ranger program by the time the first cruise ships arrive in May. The state needs to recruit, hire, train and assign the monitors to ships. Regulations are needed; procedures must be drafted. That takes time. This season should be a shakeout cruise for the program, which means state officials should get shaking on a real onboard observer program, and legislators should put away any ideas of grounding it.

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