Coast Guard reports decrease in Alaska search and rescue


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Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmembers make contact with a mariner aboard his 36-foot sailboat trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow on July 12. Coast Guard 17th District watchstanders in Juneau were contacted by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue and told that a man, sailing his sailboat from Vancouver to eastern Canada via the Northwest Passage, needed assistance after his vessel had become trapped in the ice. Search and rescue missions such as this one are less frequent, however, and have declined steadily for the last four years.

Photo/CourtesyUS Coast Guard Cutter Healy

The Aug. 5 U.S. Coast Guard rescue of three boaters in Prince William Sound who were reported missing the night before was its latest life-saving mission, but such search and rescue operations are less frequent than they used to be.

The Coast Guard’s total search and rescue cases, or SAR, in Alaska have declined steadily each year from 2010 to 2013. There were 534 SAR cases in Alaska in 2013, down from 635 in 2010.

Nationally, that decline also holds true: in 2013, there were 17,793 SAR cases, down from 22,226 in 2010.

Search and rescue cases include a range of activities, with a focus on minimizing loss of life, injuries and property damage, with vessels and boaters in distress on the water.

The SAR numbers include some, but not all, commercial fishing vessel groundings.

For 2013, the USCG tracked 28 groundings, down from 31 in 2012 but up from 12 in 2011 and 22 in 2010. So far this year, there have been 8 groundings.

USCG Public Affairs Officer Veronica Colbath said that the commercial fishing vessel groundings are only included in SAR numbers when there is a search and rescue component to the grounding — for instance, if an airlift is needed. In other instances, the Coast Guard might just monitor the grounding, with no rescue needed.

The decreasing SAR numbers are aided by a focus on safety from several marine sectors, including the fishing and transportation industries.

Many of the efforts in the commercial fishing industry are targeted through the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, or AMSEA.

AMSEA offers a variety of fishing vessel safety courses and other education and outreach programs. According to the group’s newsletter, the Marine Safety Instructor classes are planned in Sitka this fall and Seward next spring. That course was also offered in King Salmon and Seward previously, and the trained instructors have taught marine safety courses in their communities and private companies.

Foss Maritime Co., a marine transportation company that operates in Alaska, has several programs of its own that focus on safety, such as a Safety Management System that tries to prevent human injury or loss of life and damage to the environment, a vessel safety inspection system, and the Foss Shipmate Plus program to ensure workers practice safe operations, according to information provided by the company.

Foss also uses a similar program in shipyards, and also does work on job safety analysis.

The Coast Guard itself has also worked on its outreach and education efforts to reduce safety problems at sea as part of its exercises in the far north this summer.

The Coast Guard has conducted its 2014 Arctic Shield operations in the Bering Strait and Seward Peninsula region this summer, with vessel safety checks and other test operations in August. Those are aimed not only at vessel safety, but also oil spill response and communications.

The Cutter Healy will also participate in that exercise, and was scheduled to leave Seward Aug. 8 to head north with a team of Coast Guard researchers conducting a technology evaluation in the Arctic. The team will look at upgrades to Coast Guard boats intended to help their Arctic operations, as well as test satellite coverage.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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