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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2011

COMMENTARY

Keeping the Great Lakes safe

BY M. N. PARKS

Nearly 29,000 recreational vessels are registered in the counties that surround Toledo. Because of the city's proximity to popular tourist destinations, the Lake Erie islands, and the region's largest sport fishery, the waters around greater Toledo are among the most congested in the Great Lakes.

Couple these realities with the fact that Toledo is on the maritime border with Canada, and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of the safety and security concerns that federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies regularly encounter.

Over the last few seasons, many local boaters have expressed concerns over the number of agencies that patrol western Lake Erie. In recent weeks, I have met with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur to lay out the U.S. Coast Guard's plans to promote communication and cooperation among these agencies.

I'm a boater. I know that time spent boating is used to reconnect with family, friends, and oneself. It's a way to forget about the stresses back on shore.

Since the average length of the Great Lakes boating season is just three months, I also know that boaters want to maximize their time on the water. The last thing they want is to be interrupted for a boarding of their vessel.

Unfortunately, no one agency has the authority to enforce all federal, state, and local boating laws and ordinances. Each agency that a boater encounters has a specific mission and responsibilities.

Coast Guard boardings mainly occur on recreational vessels, to ensure compliance with federal laws. U.S. Department of Homeland Security agencies board vessels to ensure compliance with immigration and customs laws. State and local agencies enforce laws and ordinances in their jurisdictions.

Since I assumed command of the 9th Coast Guard District, my priority has been to reduce loss of life on the Great Lakes. Our boardings are one part of that effort.

Our station in Toledo conducted 343 boardings during the 2011 boating season. Most took place on Maumee Bay. Of these boardings, 85 percent took less than 15 minutes, and 97 percent took less than 30 minutes.

The majority of vessels we boarded had no violations. I salute these prudent vessel owners.

But the remaining boardings uncovered serious safety violations, including missing life jackets and intoxicated operation. These are two of the most serious boating violations. They contribute to boating fatalities each year, and endanger the lives of safe boaters, their property, and the marine environment.

Our search and rescue statistics for the 2011 fiscal year indicate fewer lives lost on the Great Lakes, and a 13 percent increase in the number of lives saved compared with the previous year. However, we can do better.

Our challenge in the next boating season will be to ensure the continued safety and security of our Great Lakes, without unduly infringing on boaters' recreational time. To do this, we're improving real-time communication among agencies, to limit multiple boardings of the same vessel.

We are coordinating patrols to maximize efficient use of our vessels and officers. We will reach out to local marinas and yacht clubs to offer free, on-site vessel safety checks. We've also begun an online mariner feedback program at www.tellthecoastguard.com, so boaters can tell us about their experiences with our services, on and off the water.

In the meantime, I ask all boaters, paddlers, hunters, and other recreational users to assess the risk before leaving shore during cold-water and ice seasons. Cold water kills quickly, so prepare.

Never go alone. Check and monitor the weather forecast. Leave a trip itinerary with loved ones. Use an identification sticker to mark paddlecraft with owner information.

Carry a personal locator beacon. Always wear a life jacket. Carry a set of ice picks.

On behalf of your Coast Guard, I pledge to do our part to excel at executing our mission, for the boating and maritime public we serve. Together, we can continue to keep our Great Lakes safe and secure.

Rear Adm. M. N. Parks is commander of the 9th U.S. Coast Guard district, headquartered in Cleveland.



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