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Coast Guard opens Arctic operations center in Kotzebue (+ Video)

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder

A few months after announcing a scaled back version of its U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Shield program this year, the federal agency announced last week it would be opening an operations location in Kotzebue in preparation for increased marine activities in Western Alaska and the Bering Strait.

The “seasonal forward operating location” will consist of one Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter with support air and ground crews, which will be based out of the Alaska Air National Guard Hangar in Kotzebue.

The Coast Guard crews will provide a vital forward deployed presence in Western Alaska during the summer operational period,” said Capt. Daniel Travers, chief of incident management, Coast Guard 17th District, in a statement. “The FOL crew will conduct search and rescue, law enforcement patrols and homeland security missions, and will participate in scheduled Arctic Shield 2013 exercises.”

Last year, the Coast Guard stationed two Jayhawk helicopters with support air, ground and communication crews, and deployed several ships, including the Cutter Bertholf, two light-ice capable 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders, a 283-foot medium endurance cutter and a 378-foot high endurance cutter to “ensure the safety of mariners, patrol international borders and provide additional search and rescue capabilities.”

“For the first time, we had Coast Guard crews standing the watch and ready to support search and rescue, environmental protection and law enforcement operations in the Arctic,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander, Coast Guard 17th District, as the season concluded last fall. “Our Arctic Shield crews were directly responsible for saving or assisting 10 people and supporting partner agencies in conducting numerous operational missions.”

This year, however, with no offshore oil operations being conducted, the Arctic Shield effort was scaled back considerably, despite an ever-increasing amount of traffic through the Bering Strait. The Coast Guard said the Kotzebue office was important to meeting its outlined objectives for Arctic strategy.

“It’s extremely important that we have a presence in the region to build interagency partnerships and increase our Arctic maritime domain awareness,” said Travers.

The Coast Guard also noted that the ability to use the Air National Guard hangar was a boon to the effort. Last year, a learning curve persisted in regards to operating equipment in the Arctic, the Coast Guard said at the time. In addition to the Jayhawk helicopter, the Cutter Healy and the Cutter Polar Star, will be operating in Arctic waters. The Polar Star was recently refurbished after several years out of service. It is now the Coast Guard’s sole heavy class icebreaker.

A National Security Cutter will also be deployed as a command and control platform that will conduct various missions to include maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and law enforcement. “The National Security Cutter is highly efficient, can be underway for longer periods of time, and is uniquely equipped to respond to threats and events in times of crisis,” said Capt. Greg Sanial, chief of response, Coast Guard 17th District.

The Coast Guard said it was concerned about maintaining a presence in the region to meet the needs of the continuously expanding ship traffic.

“In 2012, there were an estimated 480 transits through the Bering Strait,” said Sanial. “Deploying our helicopter and personnel to Kotzebue will give us an opportunity to leverage existing infrastructure and will strategically position us to conduct standard operations and effectively respond to maritime emergencies.”

In addition to the cutters, aircraft and personnel conducting operations and outreach, the Coast Guard will also test other capabilities. A Coast Guard buoy tender and the Canadian coast guard will test a state of Alaska emergency towing system and a vessel of opportunity skimming system to reinforce crew familiarization with the equipment and build upon the Coast Guard’s

international partnership with Canada. A spill of national significance (SONS) seminar and a mass rescue workshop are also planned to identify potential opportunities for improvement in preparedness and response to a maritime emergency.

“Leveraging our partnerships will continue to be a priority for the Coast Guard as we all collectively work to protect mariners, the environment and our nation’s interests,” said Ostebo.

Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com