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U.S. Coast Guard District 11 – Gateway to the Pacific

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The work of the Coast Guard’s 11th District – headquartered in Alameda, Calif., just south of the Port of Oakland – is carried out through three sector commands: San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles/Long Beach and one group command: Humboldt Bay. As guardians of the California coast, and of the inland waterways of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, the district is unique: It contains six Tier one ports and the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s first- and second-largest in terms of containerized cargo volume – account for 68 miles of waterfront. Nearly a million 20-foot shipping containers are handled in Los Angeles and Long Beach in a single month.

CGC Sea Otter crew and interdicted panga

Crewmembers of the CGC Sea Otter break tow with a panga they interdicted 23 miles east of San Clemente Island, Calif., Oct. 28, 2010. The crew rescued 17 suspected migrants from the panga and brought them to San Diego, where they were then turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Allyson E.T. Conroy

The 11th District’s area of responsibility is among the largest in the nation, stretching from the Oregon border to the coasts of South and Central America, an area of the Eastern Pacific Ocean known as the Transit Zone – a well-traveled maritime route for illegal drug smugglers. District 11, as part of a Joint Interagency Task Force (JITF), is responsible for preventing drug shipments from crossing the nation’s southwest maritime border.

Partnerships such as the JITF have always been important to the Coast Guard, an agency that thrives on relationships at the national, state, and local level, and in both the public and private sectors. The new Interagency Operations Center (IOC) for Sector San Francisco, officially opened on June 28, 2011, at the district’s Yerba Buena Island base, combines the response expertise of the Coast Guard and several partner agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The IOC initiative, mandated by the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act of 2006, enables the Service and its partners to share information and coordinate more directly – both in planning and tactical decision-making – on port security and environmental response activities.


Emergency Response

The official dedication of the IOC on Yerba Buena Island also marked Sector San Francisco’s acceptance of the Coast Guard’s new Rescue 21 system. Sectors San Diego and Los Angeles/Long Beach accepted Rescue 21 systems in the fall of 2010. Rescue 21, an advanced maritime computing, command, control, and communications (commonly known as C4) system, is often described as the domestic maritime 911 system. Created to improve the ability to assist mariners in distress and save lives, it also facilitates better communication and interoperability among first responders; the system, which has now replaced the Coast Guard’s legacy radio network over nearly 40,000 miles of U.S. coastline, extends communications coverage out to a minimum of 20 nautical miles off the coastal zone.

Extraordinary events in the first half of 2011 kept responders in District 11 busy. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami – triggered by the massive 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake off the coast of Japan – hit California’s northern-most fishing port, Crescent City. The topography of the seafloor has long been known to channel the effects of tsunamis into the area, and despite advance warning that helped to prevent loss of life in the harbor, the damage was extensive. The tsunami destroyed much of the Crescent City Harbor, specifically the inner boat basin, breaking apart moorings and docks and tossing debris both on shore and into the harbor basin. The boats in the harbor were slammed together repeatedly, resulting in the sinking of 16 vessels and damage to several others.

retrieving items from Kodiak

Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Higgins, marine science technician of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, watches as crews retrieve personal items from the fishing vessel Kodiak to return to the owner, April 5, 2011. The 67-foot wooden vessel, known for performing rescue missions in Alaska, sank in the Crescent City, Calif., harbor during the March 11, 2011, tsunami. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson

After the surges subsided, the Coast Guard and the California Emergency Management Agency coordinated the clean-up effort. A crane barge was moved into the harbor to retrieve as many sunken vessels as possible and remove pilings to facilitate the work of clean-up crews, who concluded their work on April 9. A total of 2,107 gallons of petroleum products were removed from damaged vessels, and 2,260 yards of oily debris from the inner boat basin; cleanup costs totaled $3.1 million.

On July 3, District 11 rescue crews responded to a request for assistance by the Mexican navy. At about 2:30 a.m., the 115-foot sport fishing vessel Erik, carrying 43 tourists and crew – including 17 U.S. citizens – on an annual Independence Day fishing charter, had capsized in a storm and sunk about 60 miles south of the port of San Felipe, in the Sea of Cortez. Within the first hour and a half, the Mexican navy and local fishermen had rescued 35 people and found the body of a deceased passenger on a remote beach.

The Coast Guard responded with searches conducted by HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews from Air Station (AirSta) San Diego and C-130 Hercules crews from AirSta Sacramento. On July 12, after conducting a meticulous grid search of more than 7,300 square miles of land and sea, the service concluded its search for the remaining seven men. While the case’s outcome was less than wholly successful given the loss of lives, the joint U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican navy’s quick mobilizations and interoperability was noteworthy and indicative of the strong operational partnership in place.


Southwest Border Security

District 11 is also responsible for enforcing the nation’s southwestern maritime border in the attempt to deny drug and migrant smugglers access to the California coast, and foreign fishing vessels from incursions in U.S. fisheries. Attempts by illegal migrants to cross the border by sea have become increasingly common over the past two years, and mark a dramatic change in tactics. Traditionally, migrants have tried to blend in with recreational boating activity, hugging the coastline and dropping off passengers just across the border or near San Diego transportation corridors. Many recent attempts, however, have gone far beyond the border, some as far as the Los Angeles area. According to Lt. Aaron Kowalczk, a law enforcement duty officer in the 11th Coast Guard District office, these migrants often venture far off the coast, near California’s Channel Islands, in the hope of avoiding detection.

These increasingly dangerous voyages are often attempted in small boats powered by single outboard motors, and the Coast Guard’s primary concern in such cases is avoiding the loss of life. In late fall of 2010, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and the CGC Sea Otter rescued 17 suspected illegal migrants from a disabled vessel about 23 miles east of San Clemente Island. In January 2010, two suspected migrants drowned when their boat overturned in the surf at Torrey Pines State Beach. In July 2011, the CGC Blackfin, along with National Park Service personnel, rescued 15 suspected migrants who had become stranded on Santa Cruz Island – well north of Los Angeles, off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Humboldt Bay Dolphin helo in cliff rescue training

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Humboldt Bay transits over the Pacific Ocean to participate in cliff rescue training, Aug. 24, 2011. Air Station Humboldt Bay is often called upon to rescue hikers and climbers who become stranded among the region’s cliffs. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Pamela J. Boehland

Increased migrant activity along maritime routes has caused the Coast Guard and its partners – U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to step up enforcement activity and try to intercept these boats before they get into trouble.

In the Transit Zone, Coast Guard law enforcement officials, working with partners in the JITF, attempt to keep illegal drugs from reaching the maritime border – and are increasingly concerned with countering the use of self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) vessels, one of the drug cartels’ latest gambits. SPSS vessels are hard to detect and easily scuttled before they can be boarded, but Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments have become more proficient at conducting surprise boardings of these vessels and seizing evidence that can be used against them in court. In a span of 12 hours in early April 2011, the high endurance cutter Sherman, based out of Alameda, stopped two SPSS vessels, both loaded with cocaine, while patrolling the Eastern Pacific; a good portion of the cargoes were recovered and the traffickers were taken into custody. In calendar year 2010 alone, District 11 and its Task Force partners conducted 106 major counternarcotics cases, seizing more than 30.5 tons of cocaine.

The 11th Coast Guard District plays a unique role in both enforcing the southwestern maritime border and maintaining maritime domain awareness of what goes on there. Because the service is a member of both the national intelligence and law enforcement communities, intelligence personnel have access to myriad national security information that, when combined with law enforcement information, results in a higher level of accuracy and a greater reach for support to intelligence-driven operations. No other federal agency has this level of cross-cutting access.

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...