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Marine Exchange of Southern California

A unique public-private partnership ensures safe, secure, and efficient operations at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex

The busy seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, although separate operations, are right next to each other, and together they are one of the busiest ports in the world, and North America’s busiest container port.

The San Pedro Bay port complex, which includes the two ports, is a busy and special place, according to Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore, deputy commander for Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach.  “It’s an incredible concentration of interagency resources. Collaboration is a competitive advantage.”

Ship owners have always needed to get their ships into a harbor and quickly discharge and onload cargo so they can get back to sea.

In the early says of the port, shippers hired look-outs to serve as runners to alert the ship’s agents and cargo handlers that their ship was standing into the harbor.  The ship’s agents, line handlers and stevedores would be waiting at the dock. Time was money, and that information saved time.

Runners were later replaced by a service run by the Chamber of Commerce called the Marine Exchange to facilitate the efficient management of the ships coming and going.  The exchange no longer uses chalkboards, index cards or telescopes. Today it relies on radios, radars, and computers, although there is still a massive set of binoculars in the operations center.  Most of all, it relies on partnerships and collaboration, because everyone benefits from the safe, efficient and secure operations of the ports.

Today the Marine Exchange of Southern California is located on a hill at Battery Leary/Merriam, a World War I-era harbor defense installation near Point Fermin in what is now Angel’s Gate Park, with a commanding view of San Pedro Bay and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

While the bulk of the exchange’s business involves the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex, it also monitors the traffic for Port Hueneme in Ventura County to the north and San Diego to the south, as well as the Chevron Offshore Petroleum Terminal at El Segundo, and the Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach. 

Honest broker

The efficient operation of the ports and their many terminals relies on information.  The exchange’s maritime Information Service (MIS) collects, collates and promulgates the schedule for all ships arriving, departing and moving inside the ports.  The exchange makes available a 24-hour a day data feed to subscribers to manage their operations. 

The Marine Exchange of Southern California is a 501C.6 non-profit organization, which operates on user fees, and includes board representation from the various stakeholders in the area, including containership, break-bulk, tanker, tug and barge, terminal and local passenger operators, as well as pilots, steamship agents, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the maritime law community. The Marine Exchange is a unique public-private partnership, with 20 employees whose salaries are covered by the user fees, and six Coast Guard members.  


The Pier F terminal at the Port of Long Beach.

The Pier F terminal at the Port of Long Beach.


According to the exchange’s director, Kip Loutitt, a retired Coast Guard captain, the exchange is considered an “honest broker,” and the “trusted maritime information clearinghouse” for providing services and reports about what’s happening in the southern California area to the waterfront business community and beyond.

There are about 50 to 60 ships in the San Pedro port complex on any given day.  Speaking at the Maritime Security West conference held at San Pedro in August, Louttit said the port complex had 32 ships calling from 26 different ports over the three days of the conference, including U.S. ports such as from Richmond, San Francisco, El Segundo, Honolulu, Seattle, Oakland, Benicia and Valdez. Ships also called from foreign ports in Brazil, Canada, Germany, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Taiwan.  

Arrivals and movement information is used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) to determine vessel boardings, enforcement actions, timeframes for inspection, and documentation and filing requirements. 

According to Supervisory CBP Officer Ted Shimizu, a coordinator for the Los Angeles/Long Beach Regional Coordinating Mechanism (ReCoM), interagency collaboration is fostered by participation in the ReCoM, comprised of DHS core component agencies with a stake in maritime enforcement (USCG, CBP/OFO, the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) working with state and local law enforcement partners.  


Port pilot boards ship at Port of Long Beach. (Port of Long Beach)

Port pilot boards ship at Port of Long Beach. (Port of Long Beach)

“The ReCoM members work together to leverage resources, assets, capabilities, jurisdictions, and, most importantly, information.  Information sharing via partnership is the key to maintaining situational awareness, border and maritime security, and allies in the fight against nefarious maritime activity,” Shimizu said. 

At the executive level, USCG and CBP/OFO leadership collaborate as committee members for the ReCoM, as well as other forums such as the Area Maritime Security Committee (AMSC) and Port Operations Threat Reduction (POTR) meetings. 

Safe navigation

The exchange serves another vital function – the vessel traffic service (VTS) – that ensures safe navigation in and out of the ports.  Using a sensor network that includes eight radars, cameras and nine Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers, covers from Moro Bay down to San Diego and looks 100 miles out to sea, the VTS ensures all vessels can transit the water safely.  AIS is an electronic vessel and shore-based transponder system to help ocean-going ships to avoid collisions, but is also useful in monitoring the maritime domain and managing major port operations. AIS transmits information such as vessel name, call sign, position, course and speed, and destination.


VTS specialists and Coast Guard personnel in the Marine Exchange make sure vessels are moving safely and smoothly.

VTS specialists and Coast Guard personnel in the Marine Exchange make sure vessels are moving safely and smoothly.


“The radar also helps us detect and track contacts that are not using AIS,” Louttit said.

The impetus for the VTS in Los Angeles and Long Beach was the Exxon Valdez grounding and oil spill in 1989.  The Ports and Waterways Safety Act (PWSA) authorizes the U.S. Coast Guard to establish vessel traffic service/separation schemes (VTSS) for ports, harbors, and other waters subject to congested vessel traffic.  There are 12 VTS systems in major port areas around the U.S., and all are government run with the exception of the Southern California operation.

The VTS gets its authority from the Ports and Waterways Safety Act, via the Coast Guard Captain of the Port (COTP).  Under this unique arrangement, the Marine Exchange VTS watch includes both Marine Exchange civilians and a Coast Guard member with the authority to represent the COTP.  

“The Coast Guard members bring recent fleet and Coast Guard command center experience to the VTS, so we get the best features of both workforces working together,” said Loutitt.  




The exchange also helps the COTP and other stakeholders maintain maritime domain awareness across Southern California waters and ensure the safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and environmentally sound movement of vessels.  

And the traffic can be busy.  There are about 4,500 ship arrivals into the port complex in any given year, which averages to about 13 per day, and with departures that roughly translates to a major movement every hour.  But, of course, it isn’t that simple, because Louttit said their job is to move the commerce when the commerce wants to move, with surges in the morning and afternoon. “There’s a line of ships in the morning coming down from the northwest at the end of their Great Circle route from Asia, coming into the port complex,” he said.  “They want to come in between 3 and 4 am so they can tie up, clear customs, and open hatches and be ready to move cargo when the longshoremen report to work at 8 a.m.”

Very large crude carriers are coming into Long Beach with just a meter of water under the keel.  “Evergreen will be bringing in ships that are so tall that we can’t turn them around in the turning basin, so we will have to turn them around in the outer harbor and back them down to their berth. The largest passenger ships are already doing this.  This creates additional challenges for the pilots, tugboats, for the law enforcement escorts, and everyone involved in a complicated move,” said Louttit.


During a visit form city council members, CG VTS Director OSC Casey Robert describes duties of Vessels Traffic Service watchstanders and the equipment used while Coast Guard officers from CG Sector LA/LB and the Marine Exchange gneral manager look on. This is the only VTS in the country that operates as a public/private partnership between the Coast Guard and a private firm.

During a visit form city council members, CG VTS Director OSC Casey Robert describes duties of Vessels Traffic Service watchstanders and the equipment used while Coast Guard officers from CG Sector LA/LB and the Marine Exchange general manager look on. This is the only VTS in the country that operates as a public/private partnership between the Coast Guard and a private firm.


The main channel at Los Angeles is dredged to 81 feet, where the Long Beach channel is dredged to 76 feet.  Both ports handle crude oil tankers, but the biggest ones call at Long Beach because that’s where the VLCC berth is located.  Three wave buoys are installed out to sea that provide current and wave height and direction, and have sophisticated computer models to provide wave forecasts to help bring in the deeper draft tankers.  

The number of foreign tankers is decreasing because there is more domestic crude oil available.  There is a new route from North Dakota to Portland by pipeline and then comes down by barge. “That traffic didn’t even exist six years ago,” Louttit said.


Port Partners

“The accurate and timely information provided by the Marine Exchange is essential to the Port of Long Beach’s operational excellence,” said Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero. “The exchange’s planning and coordination services contribute significantly to the supply chain’s ability to move more than $200 billion worth of goods through our port alone each year.”

The shared information contributes to the secure, safe and efficient operation of the entire port complex.  “The Marine Exchange is a critical complement to our technical security program, significantly bolstering our domain awareness through their network of programs, partnerships and sensors,” said Casey Hehr, director of security for the Port of Long Beach. 

The pilots that guide the ships in and out of port agree.  “Their knowledgeable and highly trained staff ensure the orderly flow of our port traffic,” said Capt. Craig Flinn, chief port pilot for the Port of Los Angeles.  “If we experience any kind of ship problem, like an engineering or steering casualty, they’re the first people we call because we know that they will inform everyone who has need to know, from the U.S. Coast Guard to the surrounding vessel traffic, which allows us to focus on safely piloting the ship. It is a great example of a successful public-private partnership.”

Flinn said the Marine Exchange staff is very knowledgeable and experienced. “They have the Coast Guard presence, so we have that direct connection.”

Flinn said he has attended professional pilot meetings and listened to the woes that some of them have at their ports.  “I haven’t seen any other port that works so well.”

Capt. Tom Jacobsen, president and CEO of Jacobsen Pilots and a member of the exchange’s board of directors, said the exchange organizes the ship movements outside the breakwater to help the pilots bring the ships into port in a logical manner.

“We’ve been involved with the Marine Exchange for years.  They’re the secret sauce for pulling people together to improve safety and efficiency,” Jacobsen said.  “It provides a forum so we can talk to all the key players that we have to contact and operate with every day.”

The exchange assists with the enforcement and compliance role for all state regulatory issues in the movement and monitoring of vessels, and works closely with agencies such as the Office of Spill Prevention and Response of the California Department of Fish and Game.  There are occasional crisis situations, too, such as a plane crash in the outer harbor that required the establishment of an exclusion zone, and ships needed to be routed in and out of the ports along alternate routes.

But as important as the Marine Exchange is, Louttit said most people don’t know what it really is.  “We get people once a week stopping by to buy Marine Corps uniforms.”

This article originally appears in the following edition of Coast Guard Outlook.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...