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Homeland security changes affecting bay

By Kathleen M. Mangan

The Coast Guard’s emphasis on Homeland Security means there is an increased presence on Chesapeake Bay, which should prove beneficial to pleasure boating safety. For some fishermen on the Bay, it also means the loss of a few of their most productive fishing spots. And the stiff penalties for violating security zones means all boaters need to know what’s now off limits.

“Homeland Security regulations have had a positive impact on recreational boating,” says the Coast Guard’s Capt. Curt Springer, commander of activities Baltimore, and captain of the port. “We’re out on patrol more than ever before and readily available for assistance.”

In the Maryland and northern regions of the Bay, Springer says the number of personnel and patrol boats have grown by a third since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. This has resulted in an additional 2,500 patrol hours each year. The Coast Guard deployed five additional boats in the northern region, and replaced older boats with faster models, primarily 25-footers capable of more than 40 knots, with twin 225-hp engines. They also added a new station on the Potomac River at Bolling Air Force Base, Springer adds.

There have been similar increases in personnel, boats and patrols in the Virginia and southern regions of the Chesapeake, according to Capt. Robert O’Brien, Jr., captain of the port, Hampton Roads. They also added a 22-person Joint Harbor Operations Center, a commercial vessel tracking program with the Navy. And the Department of Homeland Security deployed a separate Marine Safety and Security Team in the Chesapeake, a rapid response force with 80 to 100 specially trained personnel, and six boats to respond to terrorist situations.

Yet despite the increased Coast Guard patrols, and plans to further expand the fleet and personnel in the Chesapeake over the next few years, recreational boat boardings and inspections have not increased, says Springer. Rather, new resources are focused on expanded security missions, and additional patrolling is concentrated around critical infrastructure, he says.

“The criteria for boardings and inspections haven’t changed,” says Petty Officer David Surran. “We had the right to board any boat in U.S. waters without probable cause prior to 9/11. Sometimes our decisions are random, but boaters raise the odds of getting boarded if they are operating erratically, hanging around a marine facility, anchoring under a bridge, zooming too fast in a congested area, violating a restricted area, drinking alcohol aboard or engaging in unusual activities.”

In an effort to protect ports, critical infrastructure and vessels, Homeland Security restricts access to certain areas — and a few of these zones are preferred by big fish and fishermen. Notable fishing spots now off limits are Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, restricted in January 2002, and Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal (LNG), restricted in July 2003 when it went back into use. They were the most bountiful fishing destinations in the mid-Bay region, prized for large rockfish (striped bass).

“The decision had to weigh security against waterway usage,” says Springer. At Cove Point, the restricted zone extends 500 yards in all directions from the terminal; at Calvert Cliffs, it runs 500 yards along the waterfront and extends 300 yards into the water (marked by white buoys) to protect facility structures. Both facilities are protected by Coast Guard patrols and private security; LNG ships are escorted by two armed Coast Guard boats.

“I understood the decision, but I didn’t like it,” says Frank Viscardi of Catonville, Md., who has been fishing the Chesapeake for more than 40 years. Cove Point was his favorite fishing spot: “There are some good [lunkers] there, up to 40 inches. Some days we’d go out at 6:30 a.m. and we’d have our two-fish-per-person limit by 8 a.m. But I figured that when the ships started coming in, they’d push us out.” Although Viscardi still trolls outside the restricted area on occasion and catches fish, it’s not as reliable as live lining or chumming at the LNG platform, he adds.

Viscardi mostly gives his fish away to the widows at morning mass; the loss of the two mid-bay fishing destinations is more significant to those who depend on fishing for their livelihood.

Buddy Harrison, Jr., who operates a restaurant, charter fishing business and commercial wholesale fish company on Tilghman Island, Md., says the fishing restrictions at Cove Point had an economic impact on his businesses, an environmental impact on other mid-Bay fishing spots, and an impact on the price of fish.

Until last summer, 20 of the 30 boats chartered through Harrison’s Country Inn and Sport Fishing Center typically headed for Cove Point where customers were virtually guaranteed to catch their limit, says Harrison. Now charter, commercial and recreational fishermen crowd other fishing spots, which have become either fished out or unproductive because the fish are being fed too much chum, he explains.

“We caught nearly the same amount of fish last season, but it took us twice as long to do it, and our bait and fuel expenses skyrocketed,” says Harrison. Some commercial fishermen dropped out. As a result, Harrison says some fish prices increased 150 percent for consumers, and he had to increase the menu price for rockfish at his Chesapeake House Restaurant.

As president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, Harrison lobbied at public hearings to allow fishing when there were no ships at the terminal; limit the 500-yard zone to the boat, which would enable fishing within 100 yards of the platform at the southern end; or install a daily permit system with advanced security clearance. The enacted regulation does not include these provisions.

Some fishing holes became off-limits in the southern end of the Bay, too, but O’Brien says there has been good compliance with the regulations. “People understand the reason,” he adds. No one has been charged with a security violation in the Chesapeake to date.

Here’s what boaters need to know about Homeland Security on the Chesapeake.

Restricted areas — In the northern Chesapeake, Cove Point LNG Terminal and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant are the only restricted areas. But the southern Chesapeake has numerous restricted areas due to waterfront Navy and military installations, commercial shipyards and facilities, refineries, the Surrey Nuclear Power Plant and the James River Reserve Fleet. Most restricted areas are marked with buoys or floating barriers, and highlighted in magenta on the latest charts. If you violate a restricted area, expect to be boarded, If you don’t leave the area, you could be fined up to $32,500 or face criminal charges

Naval ships — You must stay at least 100 yards from U.S. Navy vessels, and operate at a minimum speed within 500 yards. Even when there is no escort vessel, O’Brien says that violators will face a quick, determined and possibly severe response, as ships are self-protecting. Violations can result in six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If you’re in a narrow channel and must pass within 100 yards of a naval ship, radio the ship’s commanding officer before proceeding.

Commercial vessels —A commercial ship may have a temporary restricted area around it depending on the cargo, plus sea marshals — or “positive control” personnel — aboard, or Coast Guard escort boats. In northern and Maryland waters, the zone around targeted ships (like loaded LNG tank ships) is 500 yards. In southern and Virginia waters, where there is less maneuvering room in some areas, the restricted zone around targeted commercial vessels is 100 to 500 yards. Keep your marine radio on for local advisories and follow directions from escort boats. Violations could yield a $32,500 fine or criminal charges.

Cruise ships — All passenger cruise ships have a temporary 500 yard security area around them in northern and Maryland waters, and a 100 to 500 yard restricted zone in southern and Virginia waters. You could face up to $32,500 in fines or criminal charges for violation.

Local marine facilities — Certain large port facilities are required to activate private security plans this year, so you may notice new fencing, gates, surveillance cameras and security guards.

Bridges — There are no federal bridge-specific security regulations, so technically you can still fish near bridges. But keep in mind that you cannot anchor in a navigable channel or block it according to Inland Navigation Rules — and this applies where the channel runs under the bridge. In addition, many bridge abutments or pilings have lights on them and are considered aids to navigation, so you cannot tie off to them. Tying up to a bridge piling can also create a safety hazard, yielding possible citations.

In Virginia, a Department of Transportation law prohibits storage of hazardous materials under bridges or tunnels, and boats with fuel tanks qualify. Violation results in a $2,500 fine and a year in jail. The law isn’t enforced unless a boat is deemed a potential hazard, but it could be when the Homeland Security threat rating goes up.

Orange or red homeland security rating — When the threat rating hits orange, you’ll see more Coast Guard, Auxiliary and maritime law enforcement personnel on the Bay, but it shouldn’t affect your boating activities. Check your marine radio for updates on temporary restricted zones.

In a code red alert, the captain of the port determines what is allowable. In the Virginia and southern end of the Bay, the waterways are closed to all boat traffic. Boats are only allowed to move in extreme circumstances and with Coast Guard permission, says O’Brien. In the Maryland and northern end of the Bay, listen to Marine Channel 16 (and 22 if you can monitor two frequencies) for specific rules and instructions, says the Coast Guard’s Springer.

Boaters are asked to use safe boating practices so Coast Guard resources can focus on security and report anything out of the ordinary to authorities. And consider joining one of the Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas in the Chesapeake, as their role has expanded in the post-Sept. 11 era, too. “We’re conducting more patrols, and providing more direct Coast Guard support to free up active duty personnel for other assignments,” says John Ferman, auxiliary rear commodore of the northern area and resident of Annapolis, Md. Although membership is up since Sept. 11, 2001, and there was a 12-percent increase in contributed hours last year, the Auxiliary could use more help, he adds. n