Dividing Up the Pacific: USCG Looking at Modifying Vessel Navigation Lanes

The U.S. Coast Guard is looking at potential maritime navigation lane modifications that could have deep and lasting effects for the West Coast commercial fishing industry.

On June 29, the U.S. Coast Guard published a notification and request for comments for a new port access route study (PARS) from Washington state to California.

The USCG has said that it wants to reconcile the need for safe access routes with “other reasonable waterway uses, such as construction and operation of renewable energy facilities and other uses of the Pacific Ocean in the study area.”

There have been other access route studies within the Pacific, but this is the first PARS for the entire U.S. Pacific Coast “designed to analyze all vessel traffic proceeding to and from all the ports and transiting through the United States EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone),” according to the Coast Guard.

The USCG has highlighted a number of reasons why the study is needed, including:

  • Development of aquaculture farms;
  • Offshore renewable energy;
  • Increased commercial traffic;
  • Expansion of marine sanctuaries;
  • Commercial space ports/re-entry sites;
  • Development of ports supporting Panamax vessels; and
  • Potential LNG ports.

Focus on Coastwide Routes

The PARS will focus on coastwise shipping routes and near coastal users between ports and port approaches, according to the USCG. One goal is to assess impacts, if any, from siting, constructing and then operating projects that can present as obstacles to shipping—offshore wind and wind energy areas are examples. Other concerns pertain to how or whether newly restricted areas might impact vessel routing and traffic density —forcing ships too close together – and possible environmental impacts.

Under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act, the PARS is a required first step that then allows the Commandant of the Coast Guard, if it’s deemed necessary, to authorize vessel fairways and traffic separation schemes (TSS) to and from U.S. ports. This is significant because establishing fairways and TSS is based on the principle that the right of navigation is paramount over all other uses in the designated areas.

The Coast Guard explains that a shipping safety fairway “is a lane or corridor in which no artificial island or fixed structure, whether temporary or permanent, will be permitted (absent aids to navigation).” Temporary underwater obstacles may be permitted under certain conditions in specific areas.

Given this strict definition, it’s not hard to note some urgency about parceling up the Pacific. Consider, for example, that on the same day that the Pacific PARS (PACPARS) notice was published, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) published a “Call Notice” seeking industry interest in developing offshore wind in an area near Morro Bay.

Study Timeline

The Coast Guard writes that the PACPARS is expected to take several years, and that’s just to do the study; any moves to establish fairways or modify TSS would likely require considerably more time. Planning for offshore wind is also a prescriptive and deliberative process but it’s no secret that wind supporters are on a fast track—with very high level political support—and want clarity on their ocean territory claims sooner, not later, so that project work can start.

Importantly, there are two other California Pacific wind energy areas under review: the Humboldt Call Area off the north coast and the Diablo Canyon Call Area off the central coast. These three areas add up to a big slice of territory impacting navigation.

The Coast Guard writes that one use of the PACPARS might be to inform other agencies “concerning the impacts of their future endeavors”—could be a future message to BOEM. While it’s unlikely that wind energy areas could be established without the CG’s approval the PACPARS timeliness will be critical. BOEM and wind energy companies will likely have their plans on the table soon.

In its notice, the USCG requests information on nine broad topics, including navigational hazards, traffic density, insights on a company’s current transit operations and cultural/tribal and environmental issues.

Capt. Mike Moore, Vice President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said he is readying a response to the PACPARS. The PMSA has a long track record of working on offshore routing and voluntary slowdowns to reduce air emissions and protect whales.

Moore said that “mixed use development of any offshore area will have to be safely managed as any development will introduce risk to safe navigation similar to the installation of drilling platforms decades ago,” and that “there is a lot of uncertainty over how much or what type of mixed-use development there will be or where it will be.”

There have been previous, but regional, Pacific PARS: San Francisco (2009), LA-Long Beach (2010) and the Seattle and Vancouver areas (2001). Those studies focused on concerns similar to the new PACPARS.

For example, the USCG’s discussion questions for the 2011 LA-LB study are almost identical to the PACPARS questions. But there are big differences in the scope of the new PACPARS. The LA-LB study doesn’t even mention, for example, offshore wind or aquaculture or LNG ports, high priority topics within the PACPARS.

It’s likely the Coast Guard will again confront many older and familiar issues. For example, in the 2010 LA-LB study the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division submitted extensive comments. A top concern: don’t disrupt the 36,000 square mile Point Mugu Sea Range critical for weapons and missile tests. Military concerns aren’t mentioned in the new PACPARS notice.

Similarly, environmental issues were a top concern for LA-LB in 2010, particularly regarding whales. In 2010, the Environmental Defense Center commented that waterways statutes place “equal and repeated emphasis on protection of the ‘marine natural environment,’ defined expansively to include the navigable waters of the U.S. and the land and resources within and under those waters.”

EDC faulted the Coast Guard because the LA-LB 2010 PARS did not make any mention of whales and ship strikes. Neither does the new PACPARS.

Since 2010, operational changes have lessened the chance of ship-whale strikes. The larger concern, though, is not about singular issues. By itself, offshore wind, for example, may have no impact on safe navigation. The bigger concern is a possible domino effect, that operational and navigation changes in one sector will figuratively ripple across the sea.

Offshore wind could push fish and then fishing vessels into new territories, thereby putting pressure on navigation lanes and separation schemes for slower speeds, increasing traffic density, all while on the lookout for whales, while nobody gets close to Point Mugu.

And dominant for the Coast Guard is the fundamental notion of the paramount right of navigation over all other uses in designated areas. Tough decisions could be ahead if activity designations shift.

Capt. Kip Louttit, Executive Director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California & Vessel Traffic Service Los Angeles/Long Beach said that “yes, competing ocean interest is a pressing issue today and it will grow.” He cites three top concerns: offshore energy, wind and clearing out abandoned oil rigs and equipment; aquaculture, some projects may expand into LA/LB anchorage areas; and sea level rise.

Louttit, too, said he is readying comments for the USCG.

A complete look at the USCG notice is available by visiting Regulations.gov and clicking on the PARS link. Comments can be made at the site until Jan. 25.