Coast Guard weighs dropping radio-based NAVTEX system to communicate with mariners

Fishing boats in Chignik’s city harbor. (Photo by Alex Hager / KDLG)

For decades, the Coast Guard’s NAVTEX towers have broadcast from Cape Cod to Kodiak Island. The global system broadcasts weather and safety information to boats large and small.

The International Maritime Organization developed the NAVTEX system decades ago as a means to get weather and urgent information to ships on the water. It’s low-tech. Receivers spit out basic telex-type messages onto paper or on a screen.

“The most common thing that you would see is a weather message, but you will also get public safety information messages,” said Derrick Croinex, the Coast Guard chief of spectrum management and telecommunications.

“We need to replace it because the infrastructure is old and it’s failing,” Croinex said.

But before the federal government commits to an expensive upgrade, Croinex said it wants to gauge how vital the service really is.

Right now, the International Maritime Organization is working on upgrading the text-only NAVTEX system to something called NAVDAT. The new system will include images and graphics. And when that system is ready, larger vessels will be required to upgrade to it.

But not if the Coast Guard phases out these radio-based systems completely.

“Our view is, it may be better and more reliable for people to actually switch to satellite,” Croinex said.

But some mariners are urging the Coast Guard to keep the free, low-tech service rather than switch over to subscription-based satellites.

In September, the Coast Guard made its case in a notice in the federal registerMore than 50 people have commented so far, almost all in favor of keeping NAVTEX.

“It’s pretty deeply embedded across the fleet,” said Pete Devaris. “We find it on board, everything from ocean-going tugs to the commercial fishing fleet.”

Devaris was a Kodiak-based commercial fisher for years.

“It’s relatively cheap. We can buy used NAVTEX receivers on eBay for 100 bucks,” he said. “And (International Maritime Organization) satellite services are a subscription service, so we’re talking about retrofitting, you know, an entire fleet with new technology, some that might not be available to the smaller vessels.”

Piggybacking on commercial satellites would be much cheaper for the federal government. Croinex said feedback will help the Coast Guard justify investment in radio transmitters.

“We haven’t made a decision yet. We’re trying to get public opinion on this. Because we want to know, (does) the switch to satellite make more sense for people?” Croinex said.

Ed Page is the executive director of the Juneau-based Marine Exchange of Alaska. It provides real-time marine vessel tracking. Page said he’s concerned about a proposal that would migrate a free maritime service over to fee-based satellite platforms.

“I suspect some vessel operators will not pay for these added costs and go without accurate weather and safety information,” he wrote in an email.

The Coast Guard is accepting comments online through Nov. 12.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that NAVTEX broadcasts were available via VHF radios, and misidentified Pete Devaris.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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