Defense Media Network

Interview With Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

Ranking Member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard

First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008 and elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, Sen. Gary Peters represents the state of Michigan.

He serves on the Armed Services Committee; Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and the Joint Economic Committee.

Peters began his public service as a Rochester Hills city councilman in 1991. In 1994, he was elected to the Michigan State Senate and later served as the Michigan State Lottery commissioner.

He volunteered for the U.S. Navy Reserve at age 34, where he earned a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist designation and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he volunteered again for drilling status.

Born in Pontiac, Peters graduated from Rochester High School and went on to Alma College, where he earned a B.A. in political science. After graduation, while working a full-time job and raising a family, he went on to earn an M.B.A. in finance from the University of Detroit Mercy, a law degree from Wayne State University Law School, and an M.A. in philosophy from Michigan State University, with a focus on the ethics of development.

Peters and his wife, Colleen, live in Oakland County and have three children: Gary Jr., Madeleine, and Alana.


Coast Guard Outlook: What motivated you to go into the military, and then into public service?

Sen. Gary Peters: My family has a long tradition of military service. One of my forefathers fought with the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War and served alongside Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge. My father, a World War II Army veteran, instilled in me at an early age the need to give back and serve the country we love. At age 34, I volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy Reserve. I had the privilege of serving alongside many brave and dedicated men and women, and I bring that experience with me every day in my role as an elected official. My time in the Navy Reserve taught me the importance of ensuring that we, as a country, always strive to keep the promises we have made to those who have gone in harm’s way to protect our country.

Coast Guard men and women secure the nation’s borders and protect the homeland, along with myriad additional responsibilities. You were among a group of 23 senators urging the Trump administration to not cut the service’s funding. How might an 11.8 percent budget cut affect the Coast Guard?

The U.S. Coast Guard plays a critical role in protecting our nation’s borders, conducting counterterrorism patrols and law enforcement operations, as well as ensuring the flow of goods to the United States year-round. President [Donald] Trump’s initial budget proposal cutting the Coast Guard by 12 percent would have dealt a devastating blow to our nation’s maritime security, and I was proud to lead 23 of my Senate colleagues in a letter urging against these drastic cuts. The men and women serving in the Coast Guard deserve operational assets, stable infrastructure, and the tools they need to do their jobs and support their families. I’m pleased the administration dropped their efforts to include these cuts in their final budget, and I will continue advocating for full funding for the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard needs full funding not only to support new acquisitions and appropriate personnel levels, but they also have to maintain and fix their existing operational assets. Between 2010 and 2015, the Coast Guard’s acquisition budget decreased by 40 percent, which was well below the levels necessary to fulfill its mission and maintain its equipment and infrastructure. The fleet of cutters and patrol boats that guard our nation’s waterways are aging at an unsustainable rate, and Coast Guard command centers, boathouses, and housing are in need of repairs and upgrades. Without the operational platforms, resources, and personnel to carry out these missions, the Coast Guard will be unable to adequately secure our maritime borders.

The Coast Guard acquisition budget continues to constrain needed investments for icebreakers, national security cutters, offshore patrol cutters, fast response cutters, and Great Lakes icebreakers. Although the Coast Guard has continued to demonstrate the ability to accomplish more with less, the service’s operational tempo is unsustainable as its infrastructure continues to age and becomes technologically obsolete. The Coast Guard must be funded to the level they require in order to carry out their missions and respond to individual and national emergencies.

The U.S. Coast Guard conducts all 11 of its congressionally mandated missions in and around your home state. While all are important, the mission of ice breaking is essential to maneuver approximately half-a-billion dollars in commodities each winter through the Great Lakes’ ice fields. In March, you stated in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security that the men and women of the Coast Guard should have “the resources they need to keep open shipping lanes in the Great Lakes.” What does the service require in the region, and in the Arctic, to fulfill its ice breaking mission?

The Coast Guard’s ice breaking operations ensure shipping lanes in our northern regions are accessible, which keeps our nation’s economy humming. Ships on the Great Lakes carry 163 million tons of cargo annually and are more efficient than rail or trucks, which gives our region’s agricultural, mining, and manufacturing industries a competitive advantage. In recent years, the Great Lakes have seen record levels of ice cover, and without continuous heavy ice breaking provided by the Coast Guard, this ice cover threatens the uninterrupted movement of commercial shipping that is so vital to the economy in Michigan and neighboring states. We need to ensure commercial ships can get their products to consumers and grow their businesses, and this requires additional Great Lakes ice breaking capabilities. The CGC Mackinaw, commissioned in 2006, is the only heavy icebreaker operating on the Great Lakes, and the other nine ice breaking tugs, some of which were commissioned in the 1970s, are aging drastically. I worked to authorize a new Coast Guard heavy icebreaker in the Great Lakes, and I will continue to urge Congress to appropriate the necessary funds for its construction.

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Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. U.S. Senate Photographic Studio photo by John Klemmer

In addition to ice breaking capacity on the Great Lakes, additional icebreakers in the Arctic are needed to protect our economic and national security interests. Right now, the Coast Guard’s only Arctic heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is the sole U.S. surface presence capable of keeping Arctic shipping lanes open or conducting search and rescue missions year-round. Russia has over 40 icebreakers in its fleet, many of them nuclear powered, with plans for new breakers underway. In December 2016, China began construction on its first domestically built polar icebreaker, which will have an operational range of 20,000 nautical miles and is forecasted for final completion by 2019. That’s why it is imperative for the U.S. to invest in additional assets like new heavy icebreakers so that our nation can meet emerging transportation, security, and mission-support demands.

The Commerce Department extended the comment period on Executive Order 13795, which could roll back key protections to marine sanctuaries and monuments. As stewards of living marine resources, in what ways could these rollbacks change this Coast Guard mission?

Nationwide, marine sanctuaries generate $8 billion and support over 70,000 jobs in coastal communities across the country through numerous economic activities including fishing, research, recreation, and tourism. These sanctuaries are major economic drivers for local communities, including in Alpena, Michigan, where the Thunder Bay [National] Marine Sanctuary brings nearly 100,000 annual visitors to northeast Michigan. In 2005, counties surrounding Thunder Bay garnered $100 million in sales associated with sanctuary activities and $39.1 million in personal income to residents, and it supported 1,704 jobs.

I was extremely alarmed by the April executive order from President Trump directing the Department of Commerce to review designations and expansions of national marine sanctuaries from the last 10 years – including Thunder Bay’s 2014 expansion from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles, a tenfold increase. I was additionally concerned that the public comment period on the executive order was only 30 days. Public engagement was [a] critical component in the creation of many of our national sanctuary designations, including Thunder Bay’s expansion, and the public deserved sufficient time to share their thoughts about the potential rollbacks. That’s why I sent a letter calling on the Department of Commerce to extend the public comment period and give stakeholders enough time to register their comments. I’m pleased that following my letter, the public comment period was extended from July 26 to Aug. 15. This extension provided a brief, but important opportunity for individuals to highlight the role that marine sanctuaries and monuments play as an economic lifeline to coastal communities.

Moving forward, we must devote robust resources to these special places so that researchers and scientists at Thunder Bay and other sanctuaries have the support they need to continue their conservation and research efforts, in addition to supporting coastal communities, boosting tourism and economic growth, and protecting unique and important natural and cultural resources. As ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Office of [National] Marine Sanctuaries, I will continue standing up for marine sanctuaries like Thunder Bay to ensure future generations of Michiganders can enjoy this treasured part of our state.

In the Great Lakes region, a key component of the service’s mission is to protect the marine environment. Do you think the Coast Guard has the resources it needs to respond to a significant violation of this mission should one occur there?

The Great Lakes support Michigan’s multibillion-dollar fishing, agricultural, commercial shipping, and tourism industries, in addition to serving as the drinking water source for 40 million people in North America. Given the Great Lakes’ economic and ecological importance to our region, it’s imperative that we protect them from environmental and health threats like oil spills, invasive species, and toxic algal blooms. The Coast Guard is a key partner in these marine protection efforts.

In the U.S. Senate, I’m working to support the Coast Guard’s mission and combat these threats by supporting legislation that promotes research and monitoring of algal blooms and the spread of invasive species. I’m also particularly concerned about the threat of an oil spill on the Great Lakes’ freshwater ecosystem. Last Congress, I introduced bipartisan legislation that was signed into law to improve pipeline safety and oversight in the Great Lakes basin, including a provision to improve freshwater oil spill responses under heavy ice cover. The Coast Guard has stated that it does not have the technology or capacity for worst-case discharge cleanup under solid ice, and that its response activities are not adequate in ice-choked waters – common conditions on the Great Lakes. I was able to include a similar provision in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 requiring the Coast Guard and other federal agencies to conduct an assessment of oil spill response activities for cleanup in freshwater, especially under heavy ice cover. This provision will ensure that the Coast Guard will be able to better assess challenges and develop a plan to clean up spills in icy waters. Earlier this year, I authored legislation that was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee to build on these efforts by creating a Coast Guard Center of Expertise for oil spill response in freshwater. The center will allow the Coast Guard to coordinate with universities and other partners to study the environmental impacts of freshwater spills, develop freshwater-specific response strategies, and how to better prepare for a response in or under ice. The Coast Guard already has centers devoted to analyzing liquefied gas shipping, towing vessel issues, and offshore safety, and given the importance of the Great Lakes, a center devoted to studying freshwater issues is essential.

So much of what the Coast Guard does goes largely unnoticed by the public. What is the No. 1 thing the American public should know about the service?

The Coast Guard is a lean branch of our armed forces, with 41,700 active-duty members supporting 11 statutory missions worldwide. The Coast Guard is uniquely tasked with providing maritime security, law enforcement, and prevention and response activities in both domestic and international waters for more than 4.5 million square miles of ocean, 95,000 miles of coastline, 26,000 miles of commercial waterways, 361 ports, 3,700 marine terminals, and 25,000 miles of inland and coastal waterways – the largest system of ports, waterways, and coastal seas in the world.

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U.S. Sen. Gary Peters meets with Cmdr. Greg Matyas (left), then commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Michigan. Office of U.S. Sen. Gary Peters

In 2016, the Coast Guard prevented a record-breaking 443,000 pounds of illegal drugs worth nearly $5.6 billion from entering the United States. And as of September 2017, the service broke that record with its most recent offload of 50,550 pounds of cocaine and heroin, ensuring 455,000 pounds of illegal drugs remained out of the United States this year. The Coast Guard’s long-serving fleet of high endurance cutters, medium endurance cutters, and Island-class patrol boats are key resources for preventing illicit drugs from pouring into the United States.

Additionally, the Coast Guard has been called upon in recent years to support the Department of Defense’s overseas contingency operations, such as counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, and the protection of petroleum pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. Six Coast Guard cutters and associated support staff have been deployed to the Persian Gulf since 2003 working in support of Department of Defense combatant commanders.

For my home state of Michigan, the Coast Guard does everything from search and rescue missions that keep recreational swimmers and boaters safe to navigational support and ice breaking operations for commercial shipping vessels and oil spill response in the event of a disaster on the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard’s vital services keep Michigan’s economy going strong.

Why is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act so important to the nation?

Our oceans and the Great Lakes are an important food source, and we must harvest these resources in a sustainable way to ensure we can feed a growing population here in the U.S. and across the globe. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, although it does not apply to the Great Lakes, guides the management of federal fisheries. The Magnuson-Stevens Act and its subsequent reauthorizations were crucial to reducing illegal fishing in U.S. waters, and more recent authorizations improved fish stocks threatened by overfishing. In addition to reauthorizing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries programs, there is still room to improve our nation’s approach to fisheries management through the next reauthorization. I serve as ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, and we are currently taking a closer look at this issue in a series of hearings this fall.

As we explore ways to improve our fisheries management, we can look [to] the success we have had rebuilding 41 fish stocks. These successes offer important lessons for hundreds of other fish stocks threatened by overfishing. Many of these fisheries lack crucial information about abundance, life history, and habitat of the fish. Finding innovative sources of data and improving data collection methods will help management make better decisions and reduce the uncertainty about the fish stocks in our oceans. Fisheries also face ongoing threats from extreme weather and changing ocean conditions. Fisheries management will need to find ways to account for the changing environment to ensure we can continue harvesting fish from the ocean and sustainably manage this important food source for future generations.