USCG Rear Admiral Brooks hails Arctic zone challenges:
November 12, 2007
A telephone interview with Rear Admiral Arthur E. 'Gene' Brooks, Commander of the United States Coast Guard's 17th District:
ALASKAREPORT.COM: Good afternoon Admiral Brooks, I'm fish columnist Stephen Taufen from the AlaskaReport.com website, which has recently reached as many as 142,000 viewers in one day. Thanks for taking time out from your busy day. We've met before at regional fish council meetings; and Bill Wilson of the Council staff came along yesterday on the C-130 flight to Barrow because he's doing the Arctic Fishery Management Plan for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which you hold a seat on. Admiral, what's your 1-2-3 take on how the Council's fishery management planning fits into the Coast Guard's expanding role in the Arctic?
RADM BROOKS: The USCG is a non-voting member on the Council because our primary role in Alaska fisheries is to support the National Marine Fisheries Service with enforcement of whatever management regimes or plan that the Council comes up with. So, the situation for the Arctic, and for the Bering Sea today, is to jointly work with State troopers and NMFS law enforcement to enforce the fishery management strategy they have created, whether for exclusion of fishing activity or for fishing of some type, when and where. It will be a Coast Guard role to help enforce their plan.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: How are we currently situated in the Arctic in terms of fishing Vessel Monitoring Systems; and does the VMS coverage go all the way north?
RADM BROOKS: One of my large concerns is how does the Coast Guard develop what I call "Arctic Domain Awareness." How do I find out who is up there; and how do we determine the risks involved in operations in the Arctic. It is a big challenge, and most of the Alaskan fisheries currently do not have VMS, so it will be an issue for the Council to determine whether VMS is applied to a given fishery or not. Right now we have nothing in the Arctic and, to my knowledge, there is no commercial fishing in the Arctic, but with species movement into the Arctic, the assumption is that you are either going to have to continue 'no fishing' or determine what species and under what conditions.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: Do you have some expected timeline; and please describe your plans for moving USCG equipment north?
RADM BROOKS: Our current plan is to continue to conduct biweekly flights for awareness, for us to learn what's up there. And for practice, for us to learn what it is like to fly in that part of Alaska - because it is not a place we have routinely gone in the past. We are planning over the next summer to conduct a test-bed program to move aircraft and helicopters, boats and cutters up to the Arctic, the Chukchi and the Beaufort Sea, primarily to see what's out there.
All of the external sources, the Arctic Research commission and others are telling us there is more and more ship traffic. We know that three cruise ships came through the Northern Passage last year, and we've had the Shell expedition that - even though under injunction - did move some vessels up there to take a look. And all of those are new things in the Arctic; things that I'm concerned about, because if we have a cruise ship up there and we have to move two hundred burn victims out, we're not prepared to do that right now.
We need to be prepared to do the kind of things on the North Slope that we are currently prepared to do in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska with cruise ships. Because we have more and more commercial vessels moving, we start getting concerned with how do they navigate, how do we help keep them from running aground, and keep them from doing the bad things that large ships can do, while ensuring they can still do the things they need to do. My concern is that right now we don't have any infrastructure there, and the question is, 'Is there enough work to justify infrastructure, and if so, what infrastructure where?' We are learning about all those decisions at this point.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: In the past, the 17th District has worked with Russian border guards and at-sea enforcement efforts in the Bering Strait. Are there currently any joint operations, or Arctic support structures of equivalent nature, that you can coordinate with in the near future on the Russian side, as well?
RADM BROOKS: We do almost daily coordination with the Russians on a number of issues. We meet with them twice a year in person to discuss maritime boundary issues. And we have obligations with the Russians under various international conventions, most notably the Donut Hole Convention for the Central Bering Sea and the ban on fishing there. (The Donut Hole is fully circumscribed by the 200 nautical mile EEZ of both countries.) The high-seas drift net fishing - the illegal fishing in the North Pacific with 'the twenty mile nets' - and we cooperate, and already have to practice and learn how to do joint patrols and boardings with the Russians to enforce these international agreements, now. And we work together to de-conflict the maritime boundary line, now.
And of course, we saw some species movement north in the pollock this year on the boundary line that put American and Russian fishing vessels in close proximity. Both of us are interested keeping that clean, so that we have no issues or conflict on the line. I have talked with my Russians counterparts about the future in the Arctic. They are very concerned about their being more 'water time' when ships can access the Arctic. One of the world's new international chokepoints may become the Bering Strait - as you look at the World from the top, and you consider commercial vessels transiting over the Pole three or four months of the year, because it is a lot shorter than going through the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal; you realize there are going to be a lot of ships going through the Bering Strait. We may need a joint traffic management scheme with the Russians to ensure that we don't have collisions or other casualties that have a negative impact on either the Russian Far East or Alaska.
We are just talking in general about that, and the Russians see it and understand it. And actually setting that up would require discussions within the International Maritime Organization, and it would be a Washington-Moscow level agreement that would take years to develop - but between us locally, we are already seeing that we may have to go there. Right now we don't have the traffic to justify it, but it depends upon how the traffic develops over the next decade, whether we need to do a joint traffic management scheme with the Russians.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: The rerouting of global air traffic routes after the opening up of Eastern Russia meant airline flights increasingly pass over this northern region (like my last flight to the Russian Far East on a Tupolev-154 jet air bound toward Anadyr in 1994). Briefly, how might such polar flights involve your search and rescue efforts in the Arctic region.
RADM BROOKS: Obviously, the more ships transiting that part of the world, the more search and rescue we are going to have to do. They're [aircraft] also going to have breakdowns, people get sick on board, and all the things that happen to ships everywhere are going to happen there, as well.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: For fisheries, does your Port Clarence operation north of Nome handle things, or is a Point Barrow Coast Guard operation going to be required soon?
RADM BROOKS: Right now, Port Clarence is just a Loran station. But for a period of time this year, we did fly C-130's out of Nome because it gave us quicker access to the Northern Boundary Line and more time on the boundary line on the northern end, where we had the pressure. So it is one of the sites we are looking at that we may have to do more work from, particularly to support fisheries. Barrow will - if there are no fisheries up there - be an issue of what else is happening; are we concerned about potential oil spills, are we concerned about search and rescue, or about potential casualties or cruise ships, but I can easily see the need to do more flights out of Nome just to support the maritime boundary line in fisheries.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: The flight was an interesting trip, and we did make it over to the decades old Navy hangar where your team was evaluating it for future use. It is an interesting opportunity going on in Barrow. Is there something you'd like to say, in particular, about the Coast Guard's role regarding scientists?
RADM BROOKS: My personal opinion is that given the consideration of the receding polar ice -leaving much sooner and coming back later - the need is for much more science in the Arctic to determine exactly what is happening, and what impacts it is having on the planet's ecosystems and also on just the environment for Alaska. That means more scientists are going to be looking for ways to go there. Traditionally, because the Coast Guard runs the Polar ice-breaker program, we're kind of like the taxi driver that takes the National Science Foundation crews up to the Arctic. The Coast Guard doesn't decide what science will be conducted, but once the scientists decide what to do, we give them a ride. I've been talking with Dr. James Balsiger of NOAA Fisheries and others about what we can do if we are going up, and if we have space aboard, I'm looking to bring as many scientists as we can bring because Arctic science is an important mission for the Nation. And anything we can do to facilitate science, we're going to try to do.
ALASKAREPORT.COM: Is there a certain progression to what you are doing with Arctic Awareness, and how are your air crews responding? What are they looking forward to over the next year?
RADM BROOKS: My impression is that the aircrews are excited to be doing it. It is not the same old thing; it's a place where most people haven't gone, so it is all new and fresh for them. And when we did the polar flight, they all fought for a chance to be in the first [Coast Guard] crew to fly to the North Pole. But eventually the issue becomes, 'Well the first flight was really exciting, but what about the eighty-seventh flight?' And everyone likes learning and doing new things, but how much of this we do depends upon how much work we actually find up there.
You know, the Coast Guard has been invested in the Arctic for over 100 years. One of our greatest rescues was the Overland Expedition in 1897, when a Coast Guard crew drove caribou from the Seward Peninsula to Barrow in the middle of winter to rescue almost three hundred ice-locked whalers.
[See also: http://www.uscg.mil/history/johnson_overland_expedition.html - "The Overland Expedition: A Coast Guard Triumph"; by Paul H. Johnson.] Brooks concluded, That was not a normal Coast Guard mission: driving caribou across the north tundra in winter. So, the long history of the Coast Guard extends even into the Arctic. But it would be better if we had a consistent way of doing such efforts rather than pulling together a caribou mission in late autumn to go to Barrow.
Arctic Fishery Management Plan underway:
In October of 2006, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC, or hereinafter, the Council) requested its staff to prepare a Draft Discussion paper on options for an Arctic waters' fisheries management plan, for the northernmost region of the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zone.
Currently, the 'status quo' is that these waters north of the Bering Strait are generally closed to federal commercial fishing, the Council wanted to begin exploring policy options such as a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) now being prepared by Bill Wilson [see picture] of the Council's scientific staff. Bill went along on the USCG HC-130 Hercules flight to Barrow on Thursday, November 8.
According to information on the NPFMC website, the council recently instructed staff to include alternatives that would amend the existing FMPs for scallops, groundfish, king and tanner crab plans for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands to prohibit commercial fishing in the Chukchi Sea. Likewise, the new FMP for waters north of the Bering Strait for any species not covered by an existing FMP would include adopting sub options to close those waters to commercial fishing on forage species, and to close all Federal waters in the sub region until the Council develops select fisheries openings and related regulatory practices.
Obviously, this process has to be led by 'best scientific information' - and given scant research for this purpose to date; it means more science must be undertaken. That will mean more research vessel presence in the Arctic and possible use of Barrow's laboratories and remote sensing capabilities. With extensive experience consulting in the Arctic for industry, prior to joining the Council staff, Wilson is the right man for a cold job in this new dawn of global fisheries management and policy development.
There is widespread support for this fundamental Arctic FMP to get underway and it is expected that Wilson and the Council will complete a final review in June of 2008, in preparation for making the Arctic FMP effective in 2009. The Council's Ecosystem Committee will oversee the continuing development of the Arctic FMP, which is to be simple and straightforward to start with. Likewise, the Council record states that the conditions under which fisheries might be permitted in the future, and their management regimes, will be addressed at a latter stage in the stepwise progression.
The Council also noted the need - not unlike the current Coast Guard approach - to conduct community outreach efforts, especially during Alaska Federation of Native conventions and other seasonal gatherings of northern region community members. After all, with economic changes come a host of new social challenges and effects. The Coast Guard's increased severe cold-climate operations and Arctic Domain Awareness flights will offer important support to the Council's federal role.
Arctic researchers assisted by USCG capabilities:Richard A. Beck from the Central State University in Cincinnati is one of the scientists doing joint science projects with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC). BASC is a non-profit established by the Ukpeagvic Inupiat Corporation.
BASC provides logistics and supports research by international scientists conducting studies in the polar regions, and also provides field support under a National Science Foundation Cooperative Agreement. We were met in Barrow by Alice Drake of BASC, and her compatriots, who provided the media and crew with a pleasant tour of research facilities and the lay of the waterfront. The bowhead whale research efforts are extensive and we toured the hallways of the research center where remarkable posters and a radiograph of a whale fetus adorn the walls. That morning, fresh polar bear tracks were spotted near one research building we visited, but we did not see any of the four bears. What we did encounter, though, was a tremendous cup of black coffee at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation's board room, where BASC's president and ASRC's vice president of Lands, Richard Glenn welcomed back Beck and met with the Coast Guard team.
Specifically, Beck works for the International Center for Water Resources Management (ICWRM), and will return to Barrow with a team next summer to participate in follow-up studies that will offer scientific comparison to geomorphology studies done decades ago, about the formation and characteristics of local tundra lake systems.
Beck helps gather Global Climate Change Research information and helped fund the Remote Sensing and GIS laboratory at Barrow High School. On this round trip, he was servicing some communications equipment essential to gathering ongoing climatological data, but he'll be back in Barrow soon for a week-long assignment.
Work on the NASA-NOAA-JPL ''remote sensing' project next summer will combine modern ground studies with synchronized satellite sensing. This is the kind of project that offers important information necessary to evaluate future changes in the Arctic region. (Originally trained in geomorphology, I've a dual bias and envy toward these efforts and wish their research team well.) The USCG will play a support role in these and similar projects, especially in regards to transportation of scientists and logistical assistance for equipment, as demonstrated by cases of instruments that Richard brought along yesterday. And as needed, once stationed in the area, the Coast Guard's Search and Rescue assistance will also be at the ready.
Friendly aircrew makes it smooth flying:About one dozen Coast Guard officers and smiling crew were aboard the HC-130 Hercules as we left Kodiak on a typical windy, rainy early-winter day. I didn't get all of their names, but the Arctic Domain Awareness mission was led by Commanders Craig Breitung and Paul Titcomb. It's serious work, but the entire crew was professionally accommodating to everyone's needs.
They'd loaded a passenger seating pallet with three rows of five seats, two to port, three to starboard, that appeared straight out of a blue-themed commercial air carrier's inventory - seat trays and all. That sure beats sitting sideways along the cargo bay exterior in jump seats.
On board was law enforcement OS3 Karla Kangrga; and AMT2 Brian West to manage Load and Drop, who also made sure that we didn't fiddle with the flare launching panel or pop open a life raft. Reminiscent of the old flights from Cold Bay direct to Seattle on a Lockheed Electra, the dual color earplugs helped, but it was a good idea to bring along the extra soundproof earmuffs. The wise thing was to bring along a book (and private headlamp) to pass the time, because despite being well-tuned, the four propeller engines will prevent much if any conversation. And if you want to nap, it helps to have a big fluffy Arctic parka, like the Coast Guard issues - but you'll have to bring your own.
We got to tour the 'all serious business' cockpit during flight, as long as we didn't photograph any sensitive instrument panels - or the stacks of sprinkled never-fit-your-flightsuit-again donuts and coffee spills; or eat the brie and caviar. At one point during the return, however, it became obvious in the cargo bay from the delicious odor emanating from the ventilation system that the TV dinners heated up by the cockpit crew contained a desert made with chocolate chips. But thanks to the commissary, Public Affairs officer Richard Brahm - who handled our information needs and let us have free run of the cargo bay to photograph and move about - also made sure we had plenty of double-sandwich box lunches. With typical long-flight care, the lettuce, tomatoes and cheese were individually wrapped, and fresh grapes were delicious; and chips, boxed juice and a Rice Krispies marshmallow treat rounded out the lunches. So don't fall for the "you'll eat cardboard MREs" joke.
If you get a chance to go along on a biweekly orientation flight, too, be sure to dress warm, bring gloves and wear some Arctic footwear for when you arrive in Barrow. And do bring along your own special snacks and most importantly, bottled water - like veteran explorer Beck did, to share with all aboard. You'll also get to experience the curtained but open lavatory, aft starboard in the a-bit-chilly cargo bay. It's all part of your personal orientation to what the future Arctic domain missions will entail.
Arctic Slope Regional Council chair reflects local expertise:While in Barrow, the Coast Guard crew also met with Oliver Levitt, chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Council to briefly discuss long-term cooperation and the strategic alliances needed for operations. Commander Breitung expressed continued interests in learning about all the local players, facilities and resources available for coordinated multi-agency efforts. And arrangements were made to have ASRC and BASC managers open the old Navy hangar, and an Air Force hangar, for inspection during this trip, with Levitt and fellow managers patiently explaining about the dirt floor and tundra sinking that needs to be taken into considerations.
Interestingly enough, Levitt told Breitung that he too is involved in Search and Rescue operations, as an operator of a small boat crew that has long assisted with coastal emergencies. Likewise, Richard Glenn of ASRC is also a whaling captain. As most folks know, there is a strong cultural history of Arctic expertise that regularly assists scientists and the military in learning how to survive and operate in the far North.
Decades ago, the waterfront road in front of the hangars was a mile-long runway constructed of prefabricated pieced-steel planking (Marston matting). But commercial airlines use another airstrip for twice-daily commercial flights, as did this mission.
When we had arrived, we toured a sparkling clean hangar where the North Slope Borough's Search and Rescue operations has a King Air B200 and a Learjet 31A, and two Bell 412 helicopters in use for MedEvac operations. It was obvious that this Barrow SAR operation would partner up for future combined Arctic rescue and rapid response operations to rush patients to Anchorage hospitals, if needed, after arrival in Barrow aboard any USCG rescue craft. SAR operations coordinator Richard 'Pat' Patterson and Commanders Breitung and Titcomb got introduced on this trip. Patterson, who coordinates with local Police and Fire Department rescue, runs a sharp Flight Medical facility and maintains the highest of FAA standards for the extreme conditions encountered in the Arctic.
Thankfully, though equipped and ready for action, HC-130 No. 1705 didn't get called away yesterday on any 'Mayday' and subsequent SAR operation and have to open the cargo bay in flight to ear-popping and bone-chilling delight. But you never know what will happen if some adventurous private yachtsman attempts his own Northwest Passage and runs afoul of ice, weather, ship, or polar leviathan. Be sure to look up news articles on the inaugural North Pole flight a few weeks ago, as that plane later got grounded with an engine hydraulic leak, likely due to being out on the Arctic tarmac overnight. And visit the North Slope Borough and BASC websites, as well.
Flying over the polar expanse, it is easy to see the challenges ahead for the U.S. Coast Guard, its equipment and professional crews. And these already established local wide-area capabilities will join together as good partners in the future Arctic Domain Awareness missions of the Coast Guard. [uscgalaska.com/go/doc/780/180821/].
Story and all pictures by Stephen Taufen for AlaskaReport.com
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