Federal government shutdown’s effects linger for Coast Guard in Alaska

Rear Adm. Matthew Bell, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District, talks about the federal government shutdown’s effect on the Coast Guard in Alaska. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The U.S. Coast Guard’s top officer for Alaska says they are still working through the impacts of the partial federal government shutdown earlier this year — and probably will be for quite a while.

Rear Adm. Matthew Bell is commanding officer of the 17th District. Over 2,500 personnel serve under his command. The district operates and maintains 17 aircraft, 15 cutters or large vessels and 52 smaller boats throughout Alaska.

During a recent conversation in his office in Juneau, Bell admitted their readiness has suffered due to the shutdown. He just doesn’t know how much.

Bell said the shutdown delayed shipments of parts and supplies to Alaska, and they’re still trying to catch up on the work that wasn’t done.

“So now the shutdown’s over, and folks assume, ‘Oh, it’ll only to take us 35 days to back that up.’ It doesn’t. It takes much longer than that,” Bell said. “It took us 35 days to get into that. It’s going to take weeks to months beyond another 35 days to catch up on all that work.”

Though he couldn’t say when, Bell said his district will be able to recover from the shutdown sometime in the future.

“I know that’s rather open-ended,” Bell said. “Some of those gaps we’ll be able to cover pretty quickly, just because we’ll prioritize those. Others, it’s going to take us months to catch up to where we might not even be able to catch up to them until latter part of the summer.”

Bell doesn’t believe there are going to be any lingering issues moving into the height of the summer fishing season.

“There’s always going to be readiness issues, whether aged ships with the aged aircraft. All those are going to be there,” Bell said. “I’m not forecasting a gap in capabilities or a gap in coverage for any of our Alaska units or for any of the Alaska missions.”

Bell said the Coast Guard is again focusing on the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea as the sea ice retreats this summer. It’s the 11th year for their Arctic Shield operation, which includes marine mammal and coastal surveys and stationing two helicopters in Kotzebue for the summer.

“Typically, in the higher latitudes because of the ice, the snow, the weather keeps us out,” Bell said. “We still function all year round. But we have much greater activity. Both commercially and public-private sector is always going to increase those activities as the ice recedes and winter comes back into spring. We try to push into those communities. We’re continuing to do that this summer.”

Bell said they’re also trying something new around the state this summer called a Maritime Safety Task Force, in which the Coast Guard inspects shore facilities for potential oil and other pollution issues.

“That’s going to try to put a Coast Guard team, 3-5 people, for 2-3 weeks,” Bell said. “I’ll call it in 12 hub communities around the state, and then from there they’ll try to push out into the outlying communities around those 12 centered hubs.”

Bell said it’s been as long as five years since some of those communities were visited by the Coast Guard.

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Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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