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Terrorism concerns revive license debate

The Coast Guard says it needs a better way to check the identities of boaters on the water

The Coast Guard says it needs a better way to check the identities of boaters on the water

Continuing Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen’s dialogue over licensing boaters to fight terrorism, his planning chief recently told boating writers that Allen is concerned about the small-boat terrorist threat to the nation’s ships, ports, oil facilities and waterfront.

“There is no question that terrorists know how to use a maritime-borne explosive device,” Rear Admiral Joseph L. Nimmich said at a Boating Writers International meeting at the Miami International Boat Show in February. “This is a known way that terrorists like to take advantage of an unprotected maritime environment.”

The USS Cole remains a vivid memory to those charged with defending the nation’s coast. Suicide bombers motored alongside the Cole in an inflatable boat in 2000 and blew a hole in the Navy destroyer. The blast killed the terrorists and 17 sailors, and wounded 39 others.

Nimmich says a speedboat laden with explosives could just as easily blow up a cruise ship, tanker, port or waterfront facility. He says there is the danger, too, that terrorists will try to sneak a weapon of mass destruction into the country by sea. They might hide one in a freight container, but “it’s equally probable, if not more probable, they would put it on a freighter, fishing boat or recreational boat,” he says.

Allen has offered several key ideas for discussion, airing them at recent meetings of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, National Boating Congress, BoatU.S. board of directors, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. One is to issue operator licenses or ID cards to the nation’s 17 million boaters and establish a centralized computer system for recording and retrieving license information. Nimmich says this would give marine officers a tool that every state trooper has — a way to check a boater’s identity during a “traffic stop” on the water.

“Right now you can’t identify someone from Michigan who is [stopped on the water] in Florida,” he says. “It takes hours. Using drivers’ licenses, you can identify them in minutes.”

Nimmich says Allen also wants a uniform system of registering pleasure boats that will enable one state’s registration information to be accessed by law enforcement officers anywhere in the country. He says these ways of identifying people and boats on the water make more sense as deterrents than trying to dramatically increase the number of law enforcement boats, personnel and patrols, because we will never have enough manpower or boats to seal the borders.

Nimmich says requiring an Automatic Identification System on pleasure boats also may be open for discussion. Already required on ships, the AIS sends a signal that enables other ships and port traffic managers to track vessels on a screen and access information that is imbedded in the AIS signal: the vessel’s name, call sign, type, size, course, speed and closest point of approach to the one receiving the signal.

He acknowledges the proposals have raised hackles among boaters. Allen knew they would. “What I’m doing is trying to kind of stick my toe in the water and see if I get bit by a piranha,” Allen told the delegates at the state legislatures conference late last year.

Nimmich says dialogue must continue so the maritime community can reach consensus on how much security is enough and what measures are the most effective deterrents to terrorism. Allen plans to host a small-boat summit in June to continue the discussion. Whatever course is adopted, it almost certainly will require “a change in the maritime culture,” Nimmich says.