Friday, February 28, 2014

Southern California Marine Exchange
Celebrates 90 Years

By Mark Edward Nero

Although there are several other Marine Exchanges on the West Coast and elsewhere in the United States, the one serving the greater Los Angeles area is unique for a couple of reasons. For one, the Marine Exchange of Southern California is now 90 years old, making it easily and by far more established than any other Exchange in the Golden State. Founded in 1923, it’s been around since the days when the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were much smaller and far less bustling than they are today.

Another thing making the SoCal marine exchange unique is its Vessel Traffic Service, or VTS. There are other, smaller-scale vessel tracking services around the United States, but the VTS of Los Angeles-Long Beach, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in March, is a one-of-a-kind government and private sector joint-venture partnership. The facility, which provides vessel operators with information about other marine traffic, as well as vessel safety advice and recommendations, is jointly operated by the Marine Exchange and the US Coast Guard. Commercial ships and other designated vessels are mandated by law to use the VTS.

“All the commercial ships that come in and out, your tankers, your cargo ships, your ferries, we monitor them similar to what air traffic controllers do with airplanes,” explained Exchange General Manager Reid Crispino. “We line them up, bring them in, and bring them out safely.”

The LA-Long Beach VTS was established on March 1, 1994, to meet new federal and state vessel safety regulations that were enacted in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker running aground in Alaska in 1989. At the time the ship, which was on its way to Long Beach, was carrying about 55 million gallons of oil; between 10 and 11 million gallons of it spilled into Prince William Sound; it was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of the 20th Century.

The mishap eventually led to the US government deciding to place Vessel Traffic Systems around the country, run by the Coast Guard, with a combination of active duty and civil service members. However, at the time, the USCG did not think the LA-Long Beach port complex was large enough to warrant its own VTS. California disagreed and began working on setting up a VTS.

“California thought it would take the Coast Guard too long to put it in, so almost immediately, they created a voluntary system,” SoCal Marine Exchange Executive Director Capt. Kip Louttit said. “But it had no federal authority.”

Over the next five years, from 1989 to 1994, the Exchange managed to get federal Captain of the Port authority by having active duty Coast Guard members assigned to the facility. The presence and participation of the military personnel at the VTS provides authority to enforce federal navigation and safety regulations as well as to enforce port security and homeland defense procedures and policies.

And to this day, the Marine Exchange of Southern California operates its system as an agent of the State of California and in partnership with the US Coast Guard. Additionally, the VTS advises and coordinates commercial vessel traffic operating within an Area of Responsibility (AOR), which includes all waters outside the federal breakwaters – San Pedro Bay, Santa Monica Bay, Newport Bay and Santa Catalina Island – extending 25 nautical miles from where the Exchange sits on Point Fermin in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles.

Prior to the VTS, “the Marine Exchange was basically a private company that just kept statistics of the ships coming and going inside the ports,” Crispino, a retired Coast Guardsman who’s worked at the Exchange for 20 years, said. “With our public-private partnership, we became more integral in ship navigation, safety and security.”

Capt. Louttit, a retired high-ranking Coast Guard officer who was hired to run the Exchange upon the April 2013 retirement of former executive director Capt. Dick McKenna, agrees.

“These are the top two container ports in the entire nation... and that’s just talking containers,” said Louttit. “Then there’s the oil and the cars, the cruise ship industry, all the different types of vessels that come in and out of here. The public-private partnership means that we work with the agents every day getting the schedule to come in and then we work with the Coast Guard for their security piece and then we lash those up, So the ships can come in and out as much as possible exactly when they want to. We’ve got an ability to keep the synchronicity going between the ships and the shore.”

Although the LA-Long Beach Exchange utilizes the services of Coast Guardsmen to monitor vessel traffic, much of the administrative work regarding the vessels is performed by a team of civilian information specialists.

“There are Marine Exchanges around the country at all the major ports, but they predominantly do what (our civilian) Marine Information Specialists do, which is all the ship arrival/departure kind of information,” Louttit explained. “The other dozen VTSs are completely run by the Coast Guard with a combination of active duty or civil service members.”

At the Marine Exchange of Southern California, the Marine Information Specialists input data on the ship arrival and departure information, but also do much more.

“We’re in contact with the agents for the vessels that are going to come into LA, Long Beach, El Segundo, Port Hueneme and San Diego,” information specialist Porsha Abrons explained. “We’re looking for where the vessel is coming from, where it goes when it leaves the port, what berth it’s going to while in port, the activity while its in port, the cargo, their ETA, and the ETD. We put that into our database and we retrieve that information by calling the agents directly. Some of the agents send over a vessel schedule every day, and we also get a notice or arrival report from the Coast Guard every morning.”

Information is sent out to about 100 paying customers daily via various means, including electronically and via mail and fax. Information is also posted on the Exchange’s website,, where it’s updated every 10 minutes. The VTS is a nonprofit entity, and was fully funded without taxpayer money and remains financially self-sufficient through VTS user fees – which are mandated by state law and required by port tariff – to cover the costs of ongoing operating expenses.

The services offered have attracted a wide variety of customers.

“We’ve got lawyers, flower delivery services, laundry delivery services,” Abrons said. “It’s not just your average maritime professional that needs the information that we provide. We’ve got government agencies, Customs & Borders, the Coast Guard, OSPR (California state Office of Spill & Prevention Response); we’ve got a wide range of customers that rely on our information on a daily basis.”

User fees also originally paid for six uniformed US Coast Guard personnel assigned to the VTS as vessel traffic specialists and who stand watch alongside the Exchange’s civilian staffers. However, in 1999, the Coast Guard agreed to absorb the cost for providing the VTS the billets.

“We’re a non-profit, so the only money we cost the government is personnel costs for the Coast Guardsmen assigned here,” said Chesser.

Currently, the VTS monitors and facilitates about 27,000 vessel transits each year on deep sea commercial ships and local vessels passing through the AOR, according to Exchange data, which is something that the Marine Exchange’s founders probably never could have imagined would occur during the service’s humble beginnings more than 90 years ago.

Back in the 1920s, when the entity that eventually became known as the Marine Exchange of Southern California was founded to represent local maritime interests, the San Pedro Bay was a large open area with steamships and sailing ships calling at a handful of wharves and piers.

To watch for arriving vessels, ship owners and agents dispatched people on horseback to lookout posts on the coast and hilltops in the area.

The lookouts, known as “runners,” would use binoculars and telescopes to identify ships by their rigs, names or stack markings, as the ships made their final approaches into the San Pedro Bay. After identifying arriving vessels, the runners would then ride back to their offices to alert pilots, tugs, stevedores, terminals, government agencies and others.

Eventually, steamship agent and customhouse broker W.H. Wickersham formed the Maritime Exchange and Sailing Club of the Port of Los Angeles, and hired professionals to replace the runner system. For a fee, Wickersham’s organization provided ship arrival information for the maritime industry.

The professional “lookouts,” some of whom were retired Navy or Coast Guard quartermasters and signalmen, stood watch atop a newly-built warehouse at the Port of Los Angeles in the Outer Harbor, equipped with signal lights, flags, binoculars, megaphones, telescopes and telephones in order to communicate with arriving ships and alert people ashore.

Although Wickersham’s operation was popular it wasn’t profitable, and so in 1923, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce took over the operation at the behest of the waterfront business community and titled it the Marine Exchange of Los Angeles.

Since that point, the Exchange has kept a detailed record of every vessel arrival and departure from the area, from 1923 to the present.

In 1946, the Exchange was incorporated as a nonprofit trade organization under the name Marine Exchange of Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor.

The forerunner to today’s Vessel Traffic Service – which was called the Vessel Traffic Advisory Service (VTAS) – was inaugurated in 1981 as an informal, non-regulated, voluntary system for monitoring ship traffic at LA/LB Harbor. It enhanced vessel navigation safety through participation in this USCG-endorsed program by the vast majority of vessels calling at LA/LB Harbor.

Another milestone in the Marine Exchange’s history occurred in 1989, when, driven by the need to enlarge and modernize the VTAS, the Exchange moved to its current site in Angel’s Gate Park, which overlooks Point Fermin. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles helped finance construction of a building to house the Exchange and its VTAS and the Coast Guard offered free use of land where the structure was built.

“We’ve got 270 degrees of coverage here,” Exchange office manager Steven Chesser said of the hilltop location’s visibility.

In January 1996, the Exchange, by its request, was released from its affiliate status with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, leaving the Exchange to operate freely on its own terms and conditions. Currently, it is governed by a 15-member board of directors, who represent a wide spectrum of constituencies throughout the maritime industry and now has a staff of 19 full-time employees, one part-timer and seven VTS-assigned uniformed Coast Guard personnel.

“There’s always one in the building, 24 hours a day,” Louttit said of the Coast Guardsmen. In addition to vessel monitoring and information gathering and distribution, VTS staffers also attend meetings of boating groups, marina organizations and yacht clubs to give presentations on how the VTS system works, and how it can help them to operate more safely on Southern California’s waterways.

The outreach is an example of how the 90-year-old Exchange and 20-year-old VTS are proactive in making sure the highly trafficked waters of the San Pedro Bay stay as incident-free as possible.

“There hasn’t been a collision between two moving vessels in many, many years,” Louttit said, “and that’s something that we’re very, very proud of.”

This story has been corrected from its original form.