Ocean Rangers help keep Alaskans safe and healthy. Let’s bring them back.

In 2006, when Alaska voters – including myself – passed the citizen’s initiative establishing the Ocean Ranger program, we enacted a program that included onboard monitoring of cruise ships for compliance with state environmental laws. Last summer, Gov. Mike Dunleavy line-item vetoed Ocean Ranger funding for the 2020 season. This decision not only weakened environmental protections in Alaska, it placed at risk the health of the people of Alaska.

House and Senate bills House Bill 74 and Senate Bill 70 are the next step in the governor’s plan to eliminate the Ocean Ranger program. The bills repeal the Ocean Ranger program and would in theory replace vessel-based Ocean Rangers with shore-based inspections, reduce cruise ship monitoring efforts to a small fraction of past levels and virtually eliminate monitoring cruise ships while underway, if and when the Department of Environmental Conservation adopts new regulations.

The Ocean Ranger program, per statute, also requires monitoring “…the sanitation and health-related operations of the vessel….” (A.S. 46.03.476 (b)). Ocean Rangers could be Alaska’s first line of defense against COVID-19 because we are required to report instances of communicable disease on board our assigned vessels to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

In addition to health and sanitation, Ocean Rangers monitor cruise ships for compliance with discharge and pollution regulations. Unfortunately, some cruise lines’ discharge records leave significant room for improvement. In 2018, Holland America discharged 22,500 gallons of gray water into Glacier Bay and the cruise line has repeatedly violated Alaska’s air quality standards. Princess Cruise Lines and its parent company Carnival are currently on felony probation for violating federal environmental laws and were found in violation of conditions of probation in June 2019. They were fined $20 million. The court-appointed monitor’s report from December 2019 shows a pattern of repeated violations of state, federal and international environmental laws. I find it ironic our tough-on-crime governor’s line-item veto of the Ocean Ranger program will virtually eliminate the monitoring of convicted felons in Alaska.

The Ocean Ranger program is funded by a $4 per-berth fee paid by cruise ship passengers. No general funds are used to support this program; in fact, per federal law, these funds cannot be used by the state as unrestricted general funds. The governor’s veto did nothing to improve the state’s fiscal situation – and, in the process, eliminated the jobs of eight Alaskans.

When this year’s cruise season starts in Alaska, no Ocean Rangers will be on board any vessel at any time. I hope the Legislature and governor can work together to restore Ocean Rangers to the cruise ships as soon as possible to protect the health of Alaska waters, air, and – most importantly – people. As Alaskans, we must object to the governor’s bills to eliminate this critical program and urge the Legislature and governor to restore funds to the Ocean Ranger program as quickly as possible.

Capt. John Clifton Passmore is a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Master Mariner and former Ocean Ranger. He lives in Eagle River.

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