Cleveland, where Ohio’s serpentine Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie, is the headquarters of U.S. Coast Guard District 9, which is responsible for all Coast Guard operations throughout the Great Lakes Basin.
Considered a distinctive treasure of the United States and Canada, the Great Lakes Basin is shared and governed by two nations, eight states, three provinces, several tribal nations, and hundreds of local communities. The district has mission responsibilities across the entire Great Lakes Basin, encompassing a 295,000-square-mile area and more than 6,700 miles of shoreline – slightly more than three times as much general coastline as is found from the northernmost coast of Maine to the southern tip of Florida.
The district’s area of responsibility also covers 1,500 miles of international border with Canada, which is the same distance as the southwest border between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego. But in the Great Lakes, with the exception of a few bridges or tunnels defining specific ports of entry, the shared border with Canada is maritime.
To carry out the U.S. Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions here, more than 2,200 active-duty members, 1,100 reservists, 190 civilians, and 4,500 Coast Guard auxiliarists staff the district. Divided into four sector commands – Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wis. – the district’s assets include nine cutters, five aids to navigation (ATON) teams, two air stations, and 47 smallboat stations – more smallboat stations than any other Coast Guard district, representing 27 percent of the Service’s smallboat stations.
In an average year, the 9th District saves 587 lives, conducts more than 2,000 marine inspections and nearly 9,000 law enforcement boardings, maintains 2,300 ATONs, and saves $12.9 million in property.
Building a Seamless and Secure Shared Border
The maritime border with Canada here is unique due to its shared transportation systems, infrastructure, and resulting shared governance. While many unfamiliar to the region may consider it to be a series of large but distinct lakes, it is in reality a continuous and interconnected maritime system. It is a diverse region of open seas and narrow riverine environments, granting access to a broad range of maritime users from large commercial vessels to smaller recreational vessels. Every day, about 300,000 people and $1.5 billion in trade cross the U.S./Canada border.
But where there is an international border, there are usually criminal elements and organizations seeking to exploit it. The illegal maritime smuggling of contraband and people, to and from the United States, is a common threat throughout the Great Lakes. As shared internal waters of two sovereign nations, the region is one of the most complex maritime law enforcement environments in the world.
While search and rescue, domestic ice breaking, and other non-enforcement missions are built on decades of operational coordination and procedures, the historically friendly relationship between the two countries has often minimized the emphasis on cross-border law enforcement and security coordination. “We are working hard with Department of Homeland Security and Canadian partners to build a seamless enterprise of not just maritime safety and stewardship but also security capability,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt White of the 9th District Enforcement Branch.
In a region comprising vast stretches of open water and narrow chokepoints along the interconnecting river systems, White said, “There is a premium on integrated operations and effective partnership in the Great Lakes like few other places in the nation.”
The high volume of traffic and jurisdictional complexity demands not only detection but sorting capability, so that potential threats and high-risk traffic can be identified within and prior to entering the Great Lakes system through the St. Lawrence Seaway. White emphasized that “sorting and operational coordination are the key challenges; we are working to build cross-border processes and procedures that ensure our response and capability for law enforcement and security are as effective as they are for search and rescue and other missions.”
Last year, when the United States and Canada signed the joint “Shiprider” agreement, the two nations formalized a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that allowed the agencies to jointly crew vessels operating along the shared maritime border. In June 2010, the Shiprider program was used for joint patrols during the G-20 Summit held in Toronto, Ontario.
While an important development – and one still awaiting final approval by Canadian parliament – the Shiprider agreement is envisioned as one tool in future U.S./Canadian efforts to secure the Great Lakes border. At the annual Border Management Summit hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement in Detroit in July, the 9th District’s commander, Rear Adm. Michael N. Parks, laid out three principles he hoped would guide the collective effort to enhance border security: shared awareness, synchronized goals, and seamless operations. Full implementation of a joint effort, he said, will need to involve strong strategic partnerships and enhanced cooperation with Canada. “Our border with Canada is unique,” said Parks. “And it requires specific strategic focus and attention.”
In addition to securing the shared border, managing the Great Lakes waterway system is critical to the nation’s economy: The basin is home to 80 percent of the nation’s steel-making capacity, 70 percent of its auto plants, and 55 percent of all heavy manufacturing, and the movement of cargo on the lakes can approach 250 million tons per year. Keeping that cargo moving year-round is challenging, to say the least, in a region where many interconnecting waterways are frozen from December to April.
The mission has also been challenged, said Cmdr. Tim Cummins, deputy chief of prevention for the 9th District, by an aging fleet of ice breaking cutters that take an especially rough beating during hard ice seasons. “We have some maintenance issues,” he said. “So, we’ve basically shifted more of our maintenance outside of the ice season and then actually [perform] a little bit in the middle of winter, when the locks are closed. As a result, our cutters have been more available to break ice for commercial traffic when they need it.”
Cmdr. Kevin Dunn, the district’s chief of waterways management, said the Great Lakes ice breaking fleet has also been receiving some help from a 140-foot icebreaker from the Coast Guard’s 1st District headquartered in New England. The CGC Penobscot Bay, from Bayonne, N.J., remained on the Great Lakes throughout the 2009-2010 ice season, arriving early enough to break ice along the St. Lawrence Seaway. “We basically had a ninth U.S. icebreaker in the lakes last year,” Dunn said, and Penobscot Bay proved indispensable, as one of the two Canadian icebreakers that normally lend a hand in Great Lakes ice breaking duties had broken down. Given the success of last winter’s efforts – and the condition of the 9th District’s fleet – the district plans to once again request assistance from a New England icebreaker for the upcoming season.
The freshwater environment of the Great Lakes is also ground zero in the fight against the introduction of invasive aquatic nuisance species (ANS) into North America. Several harmful ANS have been introduced through the discharge of ballast water into the Great Lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway connected the Great Lakes with the seagoing shipping industry. The impacts on the food supply, economy, health, water quality, and overall biodiversity of the Great Lakes are difficult to calculate, but are universally accepted as significant and growing.
The Coast Guard is involved in the battle against invasive species on two fronts: first, as part of the U.S./Canadian Great Lakes Seaway Ballast Water Working Group (BWWG), which examines vessels coming into the lakes for compliance with mandatory ballast water exchange and recordkeeping regulations. In 2009, for the first time, the BWWG sampled literally every vessel coming in through the St. Lawrence Seaway from outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – a total of 5,450 ballast tanks. “So what I can say, with a high comfort level,” said Cummins, “is that there was no unmanaged water discharged into the Great Lakes this last year.”
The Coast Guard has proposed a ballast water discharge standard for ballast water that will be discharged into the Great Lakes and the coastal waters. This is the only way to ensure the risk of a ballast-mediated introduction of ANS into its waters is eliminated. The Coast Guard is in the final stages of drafting the rule and its responses to the 3,000 public comments received on the proposed rule.
Second, the district and its Lake Michigan field units have been at the forefront of yet another national ANS issue. The Coast Guard has been actively involved in supporting the multi-agency effort to stop the northward progression of Asian carp from the inland rivers into the Great Lakes. The district is an active member of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee and is managing the inland waterways (e.g., safety zones) in support of other federal and state agencies’ fish suppression activities. The 9th District is also responsible for ensuring the risks and impact to commercial vessels and recreational craft that pass through the electric fish barriers, put in place to prevent the carp from advancing into Lake Michigan, are reduced.
“The Coast Guard brings unique talents to bear in bridging the joint operational environments in which we operate,” said Parks. “The Great Lakes are indeed a national treasure and one in which the 9th District is particularly well suited to serve and safeguard.”
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.