Friday, June 3, 2011

The Marine Exchange of Alaska: Alaska’s Maritime Safety Net

By Ed Page

At times an evening swapping sea stories can lead to good outcomes. Such was the case in the fall of 2000 when Coast Guard Captain Ed Page, Paul Fuhs and Jeff Thompson met in Anchorage. After sharing stories on Alaska maritime casualties, the three decided to start a marine exchange that would build and operate a vessel tracking safety net for Alaska. All three had worked in the Alaska maritime community, knew the challenges of operating in the Last Frontier and saw the need for such a capability. Ten years later, the non-profit Marine Exchange of Alaska (MXAK), launched at the dawn of the 21st century, is operating one of the largest vessel tracking networks in the world, providing information on vessels sailing the waters of our nation’s largest maritime state that boasts a staggering 34,000 miles of coastline and more than 40 ports.

The core business of a marine exchange is collecting and “exchanging” maritime information to aid safe, secure, efficient and environmentally sound maritime operations. While many of the marine exchanges in other ports and regions of the US have operated for more than 100 years by visually sighting vessels and exchanging information via phone and radios, the brokering of maritime information has become more sophisticated with the advent of radars, the internet, satellite transponders and AIS (Automatic Identification System). Due to the enormity of Alaska’s maritime regions, only through applying emerging technologies could a marine exchange cover the entire state and offshore waters.

In reflecting on the startup, Ed Page noted, “Throughout my 30 year Coast Guard career I was exposed to several marine exchanges and was impressed with their wealth of knowledge of regional maritime operations. I found them to be an invaluable asset.” While assigned as the Captain of the Port in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Page partnered with the Marine Exchange of LA/LB in establishing the first joint industry and Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center. He became intrigued with the idea of developing a marine exchange for Alaska.

“The only way we could make a marine exchange work up here was to use satellite transponders, AIS and the Internet” remarks Board President Paul Fuhs, former Mayor of Dutch Harbor. Fuhs was a diver who met Page in the 80’s when he was hired by the Coast Guard to detonate shipwrecks in the Aleutians to burn off the fuel oil before it affected the environment. Fuhs added, “Soon after we opened the doors, in addition to Page, we hired two retired Coast Guardsmen, Paul Webb and Bill Benning, who worked in search and rescue and communications in Alaska. They helped build the Alaska vessel tracking system and safety net.”

To conduct field tests of tracking systems in the most challenging marine environment Page and Benning chartered a fishing boat in the Aleutians and installed various tracking systems. “Bill Benning’s communications expertise, savvy and tireless work ethic was pivotal in developing MXAK’s vessel tracking network.” Says Fuhs.

Membership and Funding
MXAK’s Board of Directors is comprised of Alaska Marine Lines, Crowley Maritime, Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Port of Juneau and Alaska’s three pilot associations, all of whom embraced the vision and provided the initial funding along with the State of Alaska. Federal and state legislators, mayors of Alaska communities, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and Admiral Papp, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, have all visited MXAK and applaud the progress in maritime safety attained from the federal/state and industry partnership that has supported the development, operation and maintenance of the system. Today, with funding provided by the marine industry, Coast Guard and State of Alaska the Marine Exchange operates 80 AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiving sites throughout Alaska, from above the Arctic Circle, west to Adak and south to Ketchikan providing vessel-tracking coverage for more than 200,000 square miles of Alaska waters.

Vessel Tracking Applications
The operation of the vessel tracking system benefits both government and the marine industry.
Safety: The system’s ability to locate vessels in distress and vessels that may be able to provide assistance is routinely tapped into by the Coast Guard, who has real time access to vessel tracking information obtained by MXAK’s system.

Efficiency: The ability to ensure the timely dispatch of pilots, tugs, line handlers, shore gangs, truckers and Coast Guard vessel escorts when vessels arrive at various locations.

Environmental Protection: The effective deployment of response vessels and the validation of compliance with environmental protective measures (speed restrictions in whale areas, offshore discharge of sewage, compliance with Areas To Be Avoided, Risk Assessments and fisheries management) is enhanced by vessel tracking.

Security: The monitoring of shipping, dispatch of Coast Guard vessels and response to security incidents are also all aided by vessel tracking.

Building and Maintaining the Expansive AIS Network
Executive Director Page is proud of the accomplishments achieved by his crew of 14. “We have a team of adventurous men who think nothing of packing a sleeping bag, bear protection and tools and heading off to remote areas of Alaska on a boat, helicopter or float plane to build an AIS site,” he says. “We’ve installed AIS receiver sites at abandoned lighthouses, fish hatcheries, tug offices, port offices, schools, mountain tops, fish processing facilities and pilot stations throughout Alaska.”

While Page may be running the show, he’s also one of the crew, boarding helicopters, sailing on boats and even kayaking to remote islands to lend a hand digging foundations for solar panels and wind turbines, hauling concrete and batteries and building structures needed to support the AIS sites.

MXAK processes, displays and disseminates data received from AIS, satellite transponders and fishing vessel VMS sensors, via a secure, password protected web site, with users restricted in what they are authorized to view. The data can also be accessed on iPhones and iPads.

Maritime Advocacy
In addition to vessel tracking, MXAK has been an advocate for the Alaska maritime community and saved the industry millions by convincing TSA to establish mobile enrollment TWIC centers in Alaska, working with the Coast Guard in exempting small ports and facilities from security regulations and in allowing for less burdensome security measures for lower risk ports and facilities. Presently, MXAK is leading an effort to develop and implement more cost effective Alternative Planning Criteria (APC) for addressing Coast Guard required Vessel Response Plans for tankers and in the near future, non-tank vessels. The APC focuses on resources and procedures that will prevent oil spills in lieu of procuring large caches of offshore oil recovery equipment that in most cases is ineffective in Alaska’s offshore waters.

Coast Guard Recognition
17th District Commander Admiral Christopher Colvin recognized the Marine Exchanges’ accomplishments when he presented the Coast Guard’s Meritorious Public Service Commendation to the organization. The citation in part read “Since 2000, the Marine Exchange of Alaska has played a key and leading role for Maritime Domain Awareness throughout Alaska by adapting available, and in some cases leading edge, technology to provide critical maritime information to both commercial and government users at unprecedented levels.”

Last year the MXAK crew logged more than 3,000 miles in their 32-foot landing craft Cleat and 200,000 miles on aircraft in the process of installing and servicing their sites in Alaska. With the federal budget challenges, the Coast Guard is not receiving the funds needed to build the AIS and Rescue 21 systems Alaska needs to effectively carry out the service’s safety, environmental protection and security missions. Due to the high cost of building these networks in Alaska, the safety net provided for mariners sailing in the lower 48 won’t be built in Alaska for many years, if ever. On this issue Page says, “We’re looking at expanding our AIS network to fill in gapped areas, develop the capability to send weather and safety messages over AIS and incorporate Rescue 21 Digital Selective Calling VHF radio transceivers throughout Alaska – technology that will benefit the Coast Guard, the State of Alaska and the marine industry. And, with the Arctic oil development and maritime operations heating up, we’re expanding our capabilities up there too”.

If MXAK’s accomplishments made over the last 10 years are any indication of the future, one can expect MXAK staff should have no trouble completing this challenging worklist as well.
For more on the Marine Exchange of Alaska check out their web site at