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US Boat Association Reproaches Small Boat Tracking Proposals

by Mike Godfrey,, Washington

15 December 2009

The Boat Owners Association of the United States has slammed proposals from the US House of Representatives Coast Guard Committee for airplane transponders to be fitted to millions of small vessels to prevent waterborne attacks.

BoatUS, in its December 9, 2009 address to the body, said that fitting transponders, similar to those used in aviation for monitoring by air traffic control towers, was not a practical idea and would do little to mitigate terrorism or piracy.

“Contrary to what Hollywood has portrayed, the average boat in this country is 16-feet. Requiring some type of transponder on recreational boats – many of whom don’t even have a battery to power it – would only be window dressing for a potential homeland security problem that will not be reduced, despite the outlay of billions of dollars,” said BoatUS Vice President of Government Affairs, Margaret Podlich.

Marine Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) have long been used as a collision avoidance tool for commercial ships and provides important vessel identification, position, speed and course information to fellow mariners as well as land-based vessel traffic control systems. Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has been tasked by the Department of Homeland Security to develop a small boat threat assessment and strategy to reduce the possibility of small watercraft being used by terrorists.

“The challenge with AIS is that it does not provide the ability to reduce the small boat threat,” said Podlich. “For starters, the AIS unit on a small boat can simply be turned off. And more importantly, how could the US Coast Guard monitor the millions of new vessel traffic movements? The monitoring would be overwhelming, on-the-water force response inadequate, and it would be costly to taxpayers to build and operate the system.” She also mentioned boaters would be forced to pick up the tab for the AIS units, which currently start at about USD600.

“Even if a would-be terrorist would go to the trouble of complying with an AIS requirement, they would merely have to pull the AIS unit’s electrical plug moments before the attack,” Podlich reasoned. She also mentioned a terrorist could simply steal a boat. “AIS does not recognize if people aboard a vessel are on a watch list.” In addition, AIS can be easily “spoofed,” or manipulated to make every AIS transponder in a certain area report inaccurate data, she concluded.

BoatUS believes the US Coast Guard would have better results addressing the small boat threat if the agency’s own America's Waterway Watch (AWW) program had better funding and infrastructure support. Similar to a neighborhood watch program, America’s Waterway Watch treats boaters as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

“Several government reports have concluded that working with recreational and commercial vessel operators is a key to increasing our domestic maritime security. Boaters need to know they have the ability to report to the US Coast Guard when they see something that appears suspicious. I hope Congress will bolster this program since it’s so critical in reducing the small boat threat,” added Podlich.

Additional funding for AWW was written into the Coast Guard Authorization Act (HR 3619) which passed out of the House last month and is now awaiting action by the Senate.

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