Since September 11, the U.S. government has been closing the gaps in airline security. But maritime officials warn that security on our nation's waterways is even less certain. This week, the Coast Guard is holding an international conference in Cleveland on Great Lakes security. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: On September 11, about 55 commercial U.S. and foreign freighters were cruising the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Even as the nation's airports were being closed, U.S. Coast Guard officials were ordered to stop and search those vessels. It took two days for the search to be completed. Commander James Hull heads the Coast Guard's 9th District, which oversees shipping in the Great Lakes region. He says that action alerted the Guard to a serious problem.
James Hull: There were about 55 ships on the Great Lakes and we didin't know where they were. Somebody knew where they were. But AIS, automated information systems, those are important.
KS: AIS or Automatic Identification System is a new communications protocol now being developed by the International Maritime Organization. Using a global positioning system, ships equipped with AIS will be able to transmit their exact location - and identity - to other vessels and maritime authorities. But so far, the system hasn't been widely adopted. And that's just the first security risk the Coast Guard discovered.
JH: We had people come to our Marine Safety offices, asking how could they drive big ships, how do they get licensed, where do you do it? Luckily somebody xeoroxed one of their forms. Again, the FBI continues to investigate that case.
KS: As the weeks went by, the list of vulnerable areas grew. Nuclear power plants, ports and harbors, bridges, tunnels, and locks. Ships carrying hazardous cargo and those from countries with known terrorist links. And then there are the thousands of cargo containers shipped daily from ports around the world.
2,700 reservists were called up to assist the Coast Guard in patroling and monitoring sensitive areas. The federal government allocated more than $220 million in additional funds. But four months after the terrorist attacks, more than 50% of the Coast Guard's efforts are still being spent on security. The Guard's original mission - to guide maritime operations, assist in search and rescue, and help clean up environmental problems - has been largely overshadowed.
Henk Van Unick: What we need is cooperation at world level to give security a real meaning.
KS: The U.S. isn't the only country facing issues of maritime security. Henk Van Unick is superintendent of port police for the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, one of the busiest ports in the world. When he took over security in 1995, he says he found no real standards existed.
HVU: Because security is a subject maritime business persons do not like to listen to. It costs money and therefore is less interesting to satisfy the shareholders.
KS: Dr. Steven Flynn would agree. A former Coast Guard Commander, Dr. Flynn is now a Senior Fellow with the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.
Steven Flynn: Well, after September 11, we did what no nation could do to a great super-power. The United States, in an effort to make itself feel more secure, imposed a blockade on our its economy. But we turned the switch back on.
KS: That blockade is worth more than $742 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Most of those goods and raw materials enter or leave the Great Lakes in bulk shipments and in containers that are off-loaded directly from ships. Flynn says a disruption to Great Lakes shipping could have wide-reaching consequences for the entire U.S.
SF: And so if we have another incident - and I think the President last night made that case as well, that we're still extremely vulnerable, we're still not out of the woods on this here - that if it happens in those sectors, my fear is not just the consequence of seeing another sight like I saw on September 16 after the attack, but also is the disruption that would come from happening within those sectors.
KS: Those disruptions could also severely hamper the Canadian economy, which ships much of its grain and steel through the Great Lakes. As the U.S.'s largest trading partner and nearest neighbor, Canada already shares jurisdiction over Great Lakes resources through the International Joint Commission. Now government officials on both sides of the border say it's more important than ever to work together.
John Adams: Because it's absolutely essential, in our opinion, that we be in lockstep that regard. Because we do share the longest and largest freshwater system in the world and we share two oceans.
KS: John Adams is the Canadian Coast Guard Commissioner. He says the U.S. and Canada have recently signed a 30-point plan to jointly improve security on the Great Lakes, while allowing trade to flourish. Both governments have already instituted new 96-hour arrival notification requirements for vessels coming into North American ports. And they've extended the international maritime borders from three miles to 12. But there are plenty of other new security plans yet to be adopted, ranging from identity cards and background checks to a point-of-origin system for clearing container cargo. And both countries will be sending representatives to the International Maritime Organization conference in London next month, where organizers hope to move ahead with new standardized strategies to keep global trade secure. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.