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Testing the Waters with Armed Coast Guard

Monday, October 23, 2006 at 2:15 PM

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For the first time since World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard is mounting machine guns on small boats that patrol the Great Lakes so they can better fight the war against terrorism. To train personnel on the new weapons, the Coast Guard has proposed 34 locations for periodic drills. The proposal raises questions about risks for boaters and potential harm to the environment. ideastream's Elaine Falk visited the Lorain County town of Vermillion - a Lake Erie harbor town fueled by fishing and boating businesses - and tested the waters of public opinion.

It’s a slow day at Valley Harbor marina. The season has ended, most boats are out of the water, and most boaters still hanging around seem a little bored. So they stop in for some beer, bait and gossip. Today Dave MacNeil and George Phillips are talking about the changes in the Coast Guard policy.

Dave MacNeil: I don’t think we’re going to get much (of an) invasion from Canada. I just don’t think so.

George Phillips: They do more on picking up people that are drunk driving boats and drinking on boats. I don’t think they need a machine gun to check perch or how many fish they caught.

But as the conversation continues, Wayne Weisman admits he doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Wayne Weisman: I watch the news every morning and I didn’t hear about the machine guns! (laughs)

When machine guns started showing up on small Coast Guard boats around the Great Lakes it was done quietly. In January, the Coast Guard started conducting training sessions with the new 7.62 mm weapons. Except for a notice in the Federal Register, which most boaters and fisheries don’t read, they never alerted the public. It caught some city leaders and boaters by surprise. Rich Stinson runs Port Clinton Fish Company, which has fishermen far out on the water every day. He says he was never warned about the drills.

Rich Stinson: They need to contact us. They shouldn’t just be shooting off without telling somebody - how do they enforce a three-mile-square zone if they don’t tell someone?

The Coast Guard admits they fumbled communication about the changes and halted the drills last month. They’ve now opened the weapons training plan to public comment with a series of meetings around all the Great Lakes. Rear Admiral John Crowley is commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees the Great Lakes.

John Crowley: I don’t know when or where or if we will see a next threat through the Great Lakes, but it’s my job to be ready. I don’t want to learn the hard way.

Arms have been limited on the Great Lakes for over a hundred years due to a treaty with Canada. While the U.S. negotiated with Canada to be sure the treaty isn’t violated with newly-armed Coast Guard boats, some on both sides of the border wonder why these waters, which have been safe for so long, need heightened security. Rear Admiral Crowley says with increased homeland security all Coast Guard members need to be ready to respond to a wider range of threats.

John Crowley: Through standardized equipment and standardized training we could be ready for all threats all hazards all the time, that’s a key lesson. That’s a key premise of our training.

Of the 34 proposed firing zones, three are near Northeast Ohio - one between Ashtabula and Fairport Harbor, one approximately 10 miles north of the city of Cleveland, and another between Vermillion and Huron near Kelley’s Island. Each zone is at least four-and-a-half miles from shore and from Canadian waters. Live firing would occur no more than a few days a year and only for a few hours at a time. An environmental study commissioned by authorities revealed the rounds left in the lakes wouldn’t cause harm. Some environmental advocates still worry about the lead content of the rounds but the Coast Guard does have its supporters.

Across the train tracks from Valley Harbor, John Gabriel is spraying boats down, getting them ready for winter. He has owned ROMPS Marina for 16 years and heads the Vermillion Marina Business Association.

John Gabriel: The only concerns I would have is if it were to interrupt business and there’s nothing in the plans that show it will interrupt business. Yeah, will it inconvenience us? Possibly.

Gabriel says these days, a little inconvenience is worth it.

John Gabriel: We’re technically at war since 9/11. The Coast Guard has had increased presence and I just think this is part of the world we live in.

But Rich Stinson at the Port Clinton Fish Company says some of his most lucrative nets are near the proposed safety zones. If he doesn’t get warned at least a month ahead of drill days, it could cut in on business.

Rich Stinson: It’s very costly and time consuming for us to set those nets and pull them. It’ll take a day to pull four nets and reset them, so you’ve lost all your money that day for catching fish and then you’re resetting a net. I mean, it’s a lot of money lost.

Stinson’s boats already navigate around an existing safety zone in Camp Perry, near Toledo. He says even with well marked borders, zones can be easy to miss.

Rich Stinson: We know to stay out of the zone because you could get shot at. When I was younger, I was fishing with a net, and I went over that zone and didn’t realize it, and heard (a) bullet come right over the boats before. You know the possibility is very low, but who want to get their body shot with a bullet.

The Coast Guard is collecting comments at nine public meetings, including one in Cleveland tonight at the Celebreeze Federal Building. Comments can also be contributed by mail and through the Coast Guard’s website thru November 13th. For 90.3 News, I’m Elaine Falk.

Additional Information

U.S. Great Lakes Proposed Permanent Safety Zones

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