COMMENTARY: The Green Line of Defense

The Coast Guard Protects the Seas from Terrorists, Pirates…and Polluters

The Coast Guard boards commercial fishing vessels at sea to make sure rules and catch limits are followed.©

Since 1972, the Coast Guard has been responsible for a range of environmental prevention and response activities. Those include managing the billion-dollar Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund used for emergency cleanups and the investigation of illegal dumping of oily waste at sea. Still, since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, 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," 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 53,000 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.

Besides dealing with oil and gas, the Coast Guard’s other big environmental responsibility is protecting living marine resources. A study in the science journal Nature reported that 90% of large open ocean fish including big tuna, sharks and billfish, have been wiped out by industrial overfishing since 1950. 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 three to 200 miles offshore.

The Coast Guard also boards 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 life-saving equipment onboard and save their lives when things go wrong as they were able to do for 42 of 47 people when the factory trawler Alaska Ranger sank in the frigid Bering Sea in April 2008, triggering one of the Coast Guard’s largest open-sea rescue efforts.

Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest commercial fishing group on the West Coast, thinks the relationship is good but threatened.

"There’s a great deal of respect [for the Coast Guard] especially with search and rescue in coastal communities like Fort Bragg and Eureka [California]," he says, "but when you have leaders in Washington, D.C., giving orders for them to focus on drug interdiction or this war on terror, you just have to be sure they don’t neglect their traditional roles."

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. A U.N.-sanctioned global ban on high-seas driftnets finally went into effect in 1993.

In the years since, the Guard 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 has had FLEC observers ride on some of its cutters out of Kodiak, Alaska.

They also set up a new rescue station in Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of 2008 to respond to increased maritime traffic on the Arctic Ocean, where fossil-fuel-driven climate change is creating a dangerous, ice-free, fifth open water coast for the service to guard.

Despite the importance of the Coast Guard’s marine stewardship mission, 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. And perhaps the public should be taking another look at what it is the Coast Guard guards.

DAVID HELVARG is author of the new book, Rescue Warriors — The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes (St. Martin’s Press).