Alaska Coast Guard in transition

 

Written by Rear Adm. Christopher C. Colvin

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin tours the Russian frigate Vorovsky during a joint U.S. Russian exchange in Kodiak April 2011.

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin tours the Russian frigate Vorovsky during a joint U.S. Russian exchange in Kodiak April 2011.

As I prepare to be relieved of command of the Seventeenth Coast Guard District I’d like to say “thank you” to all Alaskans for the outstanding support you provide to Coast Guardsmen throughout the State.

On May 19th Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo will take over the reigns as Seventeenth District commander. I will be reassigned to Pacific Area Coast Guard in Alameda, Calif.

Alaska is a maritime State.

There is more coastline in Alaska than the rest of the United States combined.

There are more metric tons of fish caught in Alaska than the rest of the U.S. combined.

And despite decreasing oil production in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, Alaska still produces more oil than any other state in the Nation accounting for about 12 percent of oil use nationally.

Almost all of that oil is being moved through the maritime.

Alaska also hosts about a million cruise ship passengers annually, second highest in the Nation.

The maritime is very important to Alaska.

And with the Arctic Ocean opening up and an increase in maritime traffic through the Bering Strait, the maritime becomes even more important to Alaska and the Nation.

The past two years have been transitional in Alaska for the Coast Guard.

We said goodbye to a World War II era long range aid to navigation system (LORAN) by closing stations at Shoal Cove, Kodiak, Tok, Attu, St Paul and Port Clarence.

 The 67-year-old Cutter Acushnet, the Coast Guard's "Queen of the Fleet", is moored to the pier prior to the cutter’s decommissioning ceremony at Base Support Unit Ketchikan Friday, March 11, 2011.

The 67-year-old Cutter Acushnet, the Coast Guard's "Queen of the Fleet", is moored to the pier prior to the cutter’s decommissioning ceremony at Base Support Unit Ketchikan Friday, March 11, 2011.

We also said goodbye to Coast Guard Cutter ACUSHNET home ported in Ketchikan.

To my knowledge that removes from the Nation the last vestiges of commissioned, operational units going back to World War II.

Both LORAN and ACUSHNET helped the United States win World War II.

LORAN has been replaced by GPS.

And ACUSHNET has given way to newer cutters like CGC BERTHOLF, currently on patrol in the Bering Sea.

The new Bertholf class cutters will be critically important to Alaska.

There are only eight Bertholf class cutters scheduled to be built to replace the 12 1960’s era Hamilton class cutters.

The eight Bertholf class high endurance cutters will be the only cutters capable of handling Alaska’s severe weather. However there will be competing priorities for their use elsewhere to protect the U.S. from various maritime threats.

Unfortunately the Coast Guard’s medium endurance cutters, with the exception of CGC Alex Haley cannot safely patrol in Alaska.

The medium endurance cutters are old and scheduled to be replaced by what are being called offshore patrol cutters (OPCs), a program that is still on the drawing board.

Hopefully the OPC’s will be able to safely operate in Alaska to relieve pressure on the Bertholf class.

Additionally, there has been discussion of an ice-strengthened hull variant of the OPC that will be important for operations in the Arctic.

Ideally at least eight Bertholf class cutters will be built along with an Alaska-capable OPC class of cutters.

Without OPCs and a full complement of Bertholfs it will be difficult to maintain search and rescue response in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.

Likewise it will be difficult to enforce complex fisheries regulations which help sustain fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

Sustaining fisheries is sustaining a two to four billion dollar a year industry in Alaska.

Rescuing those who would otherwise have perished at sea is priceless.

Hopefully the Coast Guard will be able to maintain at least a two major cutter presence in Alaska.

Search and Rescue and Fisheries are significant Coast Guard missions in Alaska and they have been going very well; with concerns for the future mainly related to the potential of decreased cutter presence.

Northern Belle rescue

KODIAK, Alaska - The crew of a Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter prepares to rescue one of four crewman from the fishing vessel Northern Belle who managed to climb into a liferaft dropped by the crew of an HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak 50 miles south of Monatgue Island in the Gulf of Alaska April 20, 2010.

When those in peril on the sea wear their survival suits or at least lifejackets, the Coast Guard seemingly miraculously returns life to shore that otherwise would have been lost. The Northern Belle sinking 200 miles east of Kodiak last summer being a prime example. Wearing survival suits, or at least lifejackets is critically important in Alaska.

The other major mission is oil prevention and response. I am pleased that since the Coast Guard received full radar coverage of Prince William Sound post-Exxon Valdez, nearly ten billion barrels of oil have been moved safely.

That system is operating soundly.

But the oil flow through the Trans Alaska Pipeline is decreasing which will inevitably increase pressure to drill for oil offshore in the Arctic.

Exploratory drilling in the ice-free summer months in the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean with 24 hours of daylight is a reasonably low risk.

But year round production during the Arctic winter remains a concern. However, year round production will not be attempted for many years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. will have to look to Norway, Canada, Greenland and Russia to learn how they drill for oil safely in the ice.

The Coast Guard is in the DNA of Alaska. The Coast Guard was in Alaska before Alaska was even a Territory.

In fact the first US flag and first US Commissioner were brought north to Sitka by the Cutter Lincoln in 1867.

What the Coast Guard does is elementary.

The Coast Guard protects people from the ocean and the ocean from people. We also protect good people from being attacked by bad people, like terrorist or pirates on the ocean.

Coast Guardsmen throughout Alaska are proud to serve the Nation and proud to help out Alaskans.

Thank you Alaska for the outstanding support and warm welcome you provide Coast Guardsmen.

It’s why Coast Guardsmen love Alaska and Alaska loves the Coast Guard.

Rear Admiral Colvin has served as Seventeenth Coast Guard District Commander since July 2009. Rear Adm. Ostebo will assume command of the Seventeenth Coast Guard District on May 19th, 2011. Rear Adm. Colvin’s new assignment will be as deputy commander, Pacific Area Coast Guard, responsible for Coast Guard operations for the western half of the world.

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