“We have a crisis in Coast Guard coverage of channel 16 here in Southeast (Alaska) with 35 percent of stations down and 45-50 percent of fishing grounds not monitored and no plan to restore them before 2024,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) in Sitka, Alaska.
Behnken, herself a veteran harvester of black cod and halibut, said it was near the end of summer before other fishermen brought to her attention how much of channel 16 was proving unreliable. “It’s a real concern,” she said. “Commercial fishermen are all trained to go to channel 16 for maydays, as are sport anglers and hunters. It’s a whole community of people calling 16 and nobody hears them.”
ALFA shared a news release from the Coast Guard confirming that they are experiencing VHF-FM radio outages throughout Southeast Alaska and may not be able to hear or respond to distress calls on channel 16. Affected waterways identified by the Coast Guard include the Gulf of Alaska between Yakutat and Sitka, Cross Sound, Peril Strait, Hoonah Sound, Southern Chatham Strait, Summer Strait, waters surrounding Zarembo Island and the west side of Prince of Wales Island.
The Coast Guard said all mariners transiting these waterways should have another means of emergency communication, such as cellphones when in range, satellite phones, high frequency radio communications on 4125 kHz, 6215 kHz and 8291 kHz, EPIRBs/personal locating beacons, and satellite messengers.
At this time, said ALFA harvester and board member Jeff Farvour, “if I make a mayday call on channel 16 thinking I am calling the Coast Guard and they can’t hear me, my best luck is for another vessel within range that has good enough reception to hear me and relay the message to the Coast Guard, if they are within range.” He also noted that when these sites are down, they don’t get updated weather reports.
Behnken said ALFA is working with the office of Sen, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to resolve the issue, which involves a contract the US Coast Guard has with Lynxnet LLC, a small business firm in Herndon, Virginia, that is a subsidiary of NANA Regional Corp., an Alaska Native firm with offices in Kotzebue and Anchorage, Alaska. Reaching the various channel 16 maintenance and repair sites requires helicopter transport. Inclement weather conditions have been known to keep maintenance crews grounded at these sites for days on end.
Murkowski aide Karina Borger confirmed that their office has been hearing from constituents about their concerns, that this is a high priority they are working with the Coast Guard to restore VHF capabilities as soon as possible.