Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Angela Henderson.
American ports are called on by commercial ships from all over the world and are a vital link to the commerce and economies of many nations. Carrying out a wide variety of tasks to ensure ports stay operational and safe in the U.S. and around the world are the Coast Guard’s port state inspectors. Inspectors examine both foreign and domestic vessels ensuring safety and security regulations for vessels are maintained.
The Hawaiian Islands are especially dependent on maritime shipping; not only do most cargo ships in Honolulu Harbor move goods between Hawaii, Asia and U.S. west coast ports, but Honolulu Harbor is also a popular cruise destination with cruise ships steadily moving about the islands during peak season.
Honolulu Harbor is a critical supply “hub and spoke” distribution system for the Hawaiian Islands. With 98 percent of Hawaii’s imported goods arriving by sea, safety and security is a vital mission Coast Guard men and women enforce on a daily basis.
Honolulu-based Coast Guard marine inspectors cover facility, container and vessel inspections across the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Japan and Singapore. This is no small task as they cover an area two times greater than that of the United States.
“The majority of the imports for the Hawaiian Islands come to Honolulu first, and then they can get put on barges to be transported to the other islands,” said Lt. Stefanie Ackerman, port state control chief for Sector Honolulu. “So it’s crucial for us to do our job with intricate attention to detail.”
Ackerman and her fellow inspectors perform a mission dating back to the mid 19th century, when steamboats, freight boats, ferries, tugboats and towboat disasters steadily increased. In 1871 the Steamboat Inspection Service was established. Eventually the responsibilities of this service were transferred to the Coast Guard during World War II, and since then the mission of marine inspections has grown. The mission has evolved from overseeing steamboats to include oversight of commercial vessels, investigating marine casualties and merchant mariners, and the management of waterways throughout America and the world.
Vessel inspections remain a particularly important mission today because not all ships arriving in U.S. ports sail under a U.S. flag; a vessel’s flag state and owner have primary responsibility for a vessel. To ensure the safety of the vessels operating internationally, port state control inspectors hold those flag states and owners accountable for their operations.
For vessels operating under a foreign flag entering a U.S. port, port state control becomes the primary means of marine safety enforcement, explained Ackerman. Just because a foreign vessel pulls into port does not mean it will get boarded, however. The Coast Guard utilizes a matrix outlined in a Navigation Vessel Inspection Circular to determine if a vessel gets inspected when they pull into port, she said.
When a vessel or cargo container is inspected, port state control looks for quite a few things; paperwork, crew competency and how safety and security measurements are implement aboard a ship are all key factors explained Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris White, an inspector at Sector Honolulu.
“Safety and security regulations can have an impact on a company’s bottom line,” said White. “Complying with these regulations are time consuming and costly. It is our responsibility as Coast Guard inspectors to ensure all regulations are fairly and equitably enforced so that America’s ports continue to operate safely and securely while at the same time taking into consideration the impacts of those regulations on the industry and public.”
Not only are safety and security a main concern, but keeping the environment safe is as well.
“When we conduct an examination of the vessel we ensure they are compliant with pollution prevention. This can range from air, garbage and oil pollution.” said Ackerman. “If a vessel is found to be noncompliant with international and U.S. regulations, then we expand the exam to determine how the vessel is breaking the law. U.S. Coast Guard marine investigators will also be involved and if the case is serious enough then the case is referred to the Department of Justice to prosecute for criminal actions.”
“Our Coast Guard inspectors are integral to maintaining Hawaii’s shipping lifelines,” said Randy Grune, Department of Transportation harbors deputy director. “Slowdowns in shipping can quickly affect our state’s overall cost of living by increasing prices for goods and services and our Coast Guard inspectors are essential to maintaining the efficient arrival of cargo into our islands.”