Greening the Coast Guard, Pirates, Fish and more
May 23, 2009
By David Helvarg
Greening the Coast Guard
My Coast Guard book ‘Rescue Warriors’ hit the stores in mid-May. It takes a comprehensive look at the “Coasties” their history, how and why they were able to save over 33,000 people after Hurricane Katrina when the rest of the federal government was immobilized, how they’ve changed since 9/11 a day on which they coordinated the evacuation of half a million people from lower Manhattan, and why they need to change again in the face of a melting Arctic and other global challenges including overfishing, marine pollution, pirates and pandemics.
Plus writing it gave me an excuse to ride along with them from the Aleutians to the Persian Gulf to Hurricane Ike in Texas and many spots in between profiling their on the job mix of patriotism, altruism and adrenaline.
If it wanted to the Coast Guard could make a good case that it’s the oldest environmental agency in the United States. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was only created in 1970 and the Department of the Interior in 1849 while the Revenue Cutter Service, the Coast Guard’s predecessor, got its first resource protection assignment in 1822. That’s when Congress directed it to guard stands of live oak trees on public lands along the coast of Florida. Government warships were built using the strong, dense wood of these trees and by the early 19th century timber thieves and “scoundrels” were cutting them down and shipping the lumber north. The arrival of well-armed revenue cutters discouraged the thievery.
Since Congress established the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990 the Coast Guard has been responsible for a range of prevention and response activities including management of the billion-dollar Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund used for emergency cleanups, and the investigation of illegal dumping of oily waste at sea that has led to multi-million dollar fines against the shipping industry.
Still, since 9/11 much of the Coast Guard’s expanded operations and funding have focused on port security and counter-terrorism.
“We shifted assets to security, and we’ve failed to keep pace on the safety and environmental side,” (since retired) Admiral Craig Bone, commander of Coast Guard District 11 in Alameda, California told me a few hours after a container ship hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge in late 2007, spilling fifty-three thousand gallons of toxic bunker fuel and inspiring widespread criticism of the Coast Guard’s response.
While trying to restore its oil spill response capabilities the Coast Guard is also taking on new responsibilities for approving sites and guarding shipments of highly flammable Liquid Natural Gas (LNG). In Boston I rode along with the Coast Guard as it conducted a high security escort of an LNG tanker, something it now does at least once a week. I also went along with its inspectors checking commercial tankers for oil and sludge safety compliance.
Besides dealing with oil and gas the Coast Guard’s other big environmental responsibility is protecting living marine resources.
Along with patrolling the United States’ north Pacific boundary line with Russia to keep out foreign factory trawlers Coast Guard representatives sit on eight U.S. regional fisheries councils that establish fishing quotas and regulations on federal waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore.
The Coast Guard also does boardings of commercial fishing vessels at sea to make sure rules and catch limits are followed on how much and what kind of fish or shellfish is taken, how many days at sea are allowed and what type of gear is used. They also protect the fishermen by making sure they have the right lifesaving equipment onboard and save their lives when things go bad as they did for 42 of 47 people when the factory trawler Alaska Ranger sank in the Bering Sea last Easter.
The Coast Guard played a key role in busting a multi-million dollar ‘fish laundry’ that was illegally taking high-seas salmon as part of a 1,000 ship driftnet fleet that laid out 40 mile long “walls of death,” in the 1980s and early ’90s devastating the North Pacific ecosystem until a UN sanctioned global ban on high-seas driftnets finally went into effect in 1993.
In the years since the service has continued to chase down driftnet pirates. Recently there’s been a small resurgence of this now illegal activity in the Western Pacific by Mainland Chinese fishermen. The Coast Guard has helped counter this by working in close alliance with the Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) and also has had FLEC observers ride on some of its cutters out of Kodiak Alaska.
In addition they set up a new rescue station in Barrow, Alaska in summer 2008 to respond to increased maritime traffic on the Arctic Ocean, where fossil-fuel fired climate change is creating a dangerous, ice free 5th open water coast for the service to guard.
Still, despite the importance of the Coast Guard’s marine stewardship mission some others in the service refer to members of its environmental Strike Teams and fisheries enforcement agents as “Duck Scrubbers” and “Fish kissers,” their humor reflecting a certain macho disparagement. And yet no one on the stewardship side refers to ‘Coasties’ working surf stations and security missions as “boat tippers” or “gun huggers.” Given their relative contribution to the health of our public seas perhaps they should.
Pirates & Fish
A Coast Guard Cutter is patrolling and Coast Guard Law Enforcement boarding teams riding on U.S. Navy ships off the Coast of Somalia searching for Pirates, one of whose bands also calls themselves the “Coast Guard.” According to a story in the New York Times, some Pirate leaders, worried about an Islamic backlash ashore, are offering to negotiate an end to ship hijackings if they are given aide and employment including jobs as a Somali Coast Guard to protect their waters from illegal foreign fishing and toxic waste dumping.
Some of the piracy can in fact be traced back to artesian (small boat local) fishermen who seized Egyptian and other foreign trawlers overfishing their waters. Of course when they started getting paid ransoms for their return they realized that piracy might be a more lucrative career path than hand-line fishing and the worst of them are now grabbing hostages and headlines.
PlastiSeas & PlastiSand
On May 21 I was honored to moderate a half-day workshop on Plastic Pollution of the Sea by the State House in Sacramento California put on by the Algalita Foundation. The Junk Raft (see Blue Notes #49) was there on display as were the intrepid mariners who sailed the plastic bottle based craft from LA to Hawaii last summer Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal and their Algalita Foundation boss Charles Moore. Also participating was Bridget Luther, head of the State Department of Conservation, Jeff Wong who runs the California Department of Toxic Substance Control and others Seaweed activists and “revolutionary bureaucrats” (as one of them referred to themselves). Also there was a plastic “Bag Monster.”
While the horrors of a plasticizing ocean were discussed, along with some hopeful signs (spreading legal bans on single-use plastic, bags, development of bio-plastics based on agricultural waste) what stuck with me was Charles show-and-tell exhibits including Pacific water sample bottles full of floating plastic fragments like a bowl of Campbell’s toxic soup, also a big bucket full of “sand” from the Big Island in Hawaii made up mainly not of shell and coral fragments but of tiny pieces of plastic brought in on the mid-Pacific Gyre, basically, Plasti-sand. Yikes. We’ve got our work cut out.
Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian just followed up on our March Summit “Seaweed Solutions” panel that she moderated with a day-long event, “Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation” held May 20th at the National Museum of Natural History. Stories ranged from the recovery of Sea Turtles in the Caribbean to water quality improvement in the Black Sea where I once got a terrible ear infection while swimming with other environmental journalists from the region who should have known better, but the sea is so attractive…
And inspirational…Some good news is Blue Frontier friend Margo Pellegrino is completing her Gulf of Mexico paddle from Florida to New Orleans Memorial Day Weekend just as Blue Frontier’s Roz Savage takes off from Hawaii to the South Pacific on the second phase of her historic Trans-Pacific rowboat voyage as the first woman to solo row across the Pacific from California to Australia. Both of them are doing their wild adventures to raise awareness of our blue marble planet in peril and what each of us can do to make a difference.
More on Roz and Margo and other news of Mermaids and other sea creatures in the next issue.
And Good News for Me
If this Blue Notes seems a bit rushed it’s because I’m rushing off to the airport for a week’s diving in Fiji. Last time I was there I was covering coral bleaching and just missed a military coup (as a reporter all I could say was ‘shucks’). This time I’ll just be diving and communing with the turtles and rays over a nice cup of Cava. The down side of trying to save the ocean Iv’e found is you seem to spend less and less time in it. This next week should restore the balance. Remember, if you like Blue Notes feel free to post or pass them on.