My Turn: U.S. Coast Guard has become the cruise lines' private militia

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

On May 27, the public comment period for the Coast Guard's proposed cruise ship security regulations closed. These are the regulations that will impose 100-yard underway security zones around cruise ships, 250-yard "go slow" underway zones, and 25-yard in-port zones. It is always so hard to squeeze time out of our schedules to respond to these things, but in this case the impact on our lives could be so great that I made the time to research and respond.

In my letter to the Coast Guard, I asked that they hold public meetings throughout Southeast Alaska demonstrating with diagrams the impact of those security zones. What, for example, will the impacts be on local boaters in places like Gastineau Channel or Wrangell Narrows? Without meetings in every single port visited by cruise ships, locals will be caught unaware when these regulations are suddenly enforced upon them.

Which leads to a more urgent point. It is highly likely that any violators of this rule in Southeast Alaska will do so accidentally, not knowing about it or not gauging the distance correctly. What will the consequences be to the violators of these security zones, who will have unintentionally violated the rule? In these days of the Patriot Act, can locals have any certainty that we won't be imprisoned without representation, or shot at, for accidentally going near a cruise ship? And if we live through it or get out of jail, what kinds of fines can we expect?

What happens when a cruise ship passes us while we are quietly fishing? Does this rule mean that when we see a cruise ship coming, we've all got to pick up and run?

Last summer, my husband and I were boarded in our skiff by the Coast Guard, after my husband had picked me up from the beach across the street from our house near the downtown cruise ship dock. We were harassed and humiliated for 30 minutes, finally released when the only problem the armed boarding officer could find was our registration copy missing from the boat (our registration was current). With these regulations in place, however, our horrific boarding last year might have turned out far worse.

When the Coast Guard representative discussed these proposed regulations on the radio earlier this year, he said that the Coast Guard has already been trying to protect cruise ships from "perpetrators" but without regulations they didn't have teeth. This proposed regulation will give the Coast Guard enforcement authority against those "perpetrators" - which is us. That was my husband and me last year. We were perpetrators. Think about that. The rule handily turns us Alaskans into perpetrators, right in our own back yards.

Yesterday, the Coast Guard was out in full force in the evening as the cruise ships were leaving. I say full force because one Coast Guard vessel waiting off the cruise ship dock had a large gun on its bow. The large gun was manned; a Coast Guardsman was posted behind the gun.

Is this really what we want in our city and our country? Who is protecting who, and from whom? Now scheduled are security cameras to be installed on the docks. Guess which way they'll point? Yes, towards downtown, towards us. The Coast Guard has become the cruise ship companies' private militia, protecting these foreign-flagged vessels from us.

Let us hope that the Coast Guard will indeed hold those public meetings, and in addition respond as true public servants to our comments and significantly modify these drastic measures. And let us all work to convince our congressional delegation that this has gone way too far.

• Michelle Bonnet lives near South Franklin Street in Juneau.

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