Marine Exchange of Alaska
November 1, 2018
Alaska's capital city sits nestled between mountains and sea upon the picturesque Gastineau Channel. Nearby glaciers and other natural wonders are Juneau's main attractions but standing sentinel beyond its bustling cruise ship docks is something else to be noticed: The largest private vessel tracking and management organization in the world. This non-profit institution is the Marine Exchange of Alaska or, to the initiated, "MXAK."
The Marine Exchange of Alaska celebrated the opening of its new building on a grey day in September 2017, more than two years after the first piles were driven into the water. Rear Admiral Michael F. McAllister, Commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, addressed a gathered crowd. "This really has global implications," he said. "This is not just a great day for Alaska. It is a great day for our nation and a great day for the maritime public on a global scale."
A few days prior, MXAK's executive director and retired US Coast Guard Captain Ed Page was putting the finishing touches on the building's new conference room, hanging a framed photo of a ship on the wall. His cell phone rang. It was Paul Fuhs, President of the MXAK board. Page answered. "Our ship finally came in," he said. They had been planning and saving for this moment for nearly two decades.
MXAK's genesis can be tracked to the turn of the century, when Fuhs and Page sketched notes and ideas on cocktail napkins at an Anchorage bar. It was the year 2000 and the world was giddy with Jetsonian dreams of 21st century progress, but Fuhs and Page were worried. The maritime industry was still behind the times in terms of safety and efficiency. The two men worked multiple maritime disasters together in the 1980s. They were painfully aware of the consequences poor communication and lack of information had on mariners' lives and on the environment, particularly in "Alaska's Wild West," a term Page uses when referring to the remote Aleutian Islands.
"We both knew there was a better way," said Page. "We needed to focus on preventing these things from happening and improving maritime safety through tracking vessels and providing better information to the maritime community."
In his time serving as the Captain of the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach from 1994 to 1997, Page experienced the benefits of marine exchanges first hand. He depended on the information they brokered to enhance maritime safety and efficiency along the west coast. After being transferred to Alaska to serve as Chief of Marine Safety and Environmental Protection, he was inspired to create a marine exchange tailored to the state's unique needs. The organization was based on a model that dates back to the 19th century, elevated by the opportunities allowed by 21st century technological headways.
In April 2018, the Marine Exchange celebrated its 17th birthday. It has come a long way from bar brainstorms and cocktail napkin scribbles. Like many 17-year-olds, it has experienced growing pains, has learned from its mishaps, and has challenged constraints in an industry that has not always been ready for change.
"We're always trying to squeeze the most out of technology and to push the envelope," said Page. He went on to list the myriad ways the organization aids the Alaska maritime community. In addition to tracking and monitoring vessels in Alaska waters, MXAK also helps ports, facilities, and vessel operators understand and comply with strict (and sometimes confusing) safety, security, and environmental regulations. Pausing for breath he added simply, "we are brokers of information."
For years, MXAK's 20-person staff was based in a rented space on the top floor of an aging building on the Juneau waterfront. The space was functional but inadequate in its capability to sustain the growing electricity and connectivity needs of a 21st century marine exchange. The new building removes those limitations. It houses a research & development lab, a rooftop used for testing new communications technology, and offices for all staff members (including ship's dog Zoe, a black Labrador retriever who has learned to use the elevator). The building also plays host to MXAK's state-of-the-art Operations Center, where maritime information specialists monitor vessels 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The watch is able to observe vessels and environmental conditions in real-time thanks to a network of more than 140 Marine Safety Sites installed and maintained by MXAK. These sites, which utilize AIS (Automatic Identification System) receivers and/or weather sensors, are dotted along Alaska's 33,000-mile coastline. They form a connect-the-dots outline of the state, from Southeast, to above the arctic Circle and out to the islands of the Aleutian Chain. It is an impressive testament to the hard work that has gone into the brick-by-brick construction of MXAK's monitoring system. Even more impressive, however, is watching the system being put to use.
On a quiet July morning in 2016, an alarm rang in the Ops Center. Almost instantaneously, MXAK's maritime information specialists reported the fishing vessel Alaska Juris was in need of assistance in the Bering Sea. Using the Marine Exchange of Alaska vessel tracking system, the US Coast Guard was able to pinpoint the exact coordinates of the vessel and spur other vessels in the area to their aid. That night, the cargo ships Spar Canis and Vienna Express, along with Coast Guard aircraft, rendezvoused with Alaska Juris, and all 46 crewmembers were saved. Alaska Juris later sank.
It was largely due to the information provided by MXAK's vessel tracking system that the crew of Alaska Juris were located and rescued so quickly. Each one of the 140+ sites is unique, and each is first built in MXAK's shop in Juneau. They are designed carefully to fit the specific needs or challenges of their location. Facets of a site include, but are not limited to: antennas, power generation (like solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and fuel cells), and communications equipment to receive and transmit information back to the Ops Center in Juneau. Once a system is built and tested in the shop, it is deconstructed and transported to its final location by helicopter, plane, or MXAK's landing craft, Cleat. Due to Alaska's expansive geography, many installs require a full day of travel. In order to install or do maintenance on the Adak site, the two person Field Ops team must travel more than 1,600 miles from Juneau to the Aleutian Islands. This is the equivalent of traveling from Seattle to Dallas, only MXAK's Field Ops team never cross a state line.
In 2012, MXAK began installing weather sensors on its new and existing sites in order to gather and provide real-time weather data on their website (www.mxak.org/weather). "This information has been instrumental in saving lives and averting disasters," Page said. He explained the ever-changing weather in Alaska can look starkly different at the Harbor versus a mariner's destination. This real-time data provides mariners the information they need to make informed decisions before ever leaving the slip. MXAK continues to install new weather sensors each year, and has received funding from the Alaska Ocean Observing System and the State of Alaska to do so, focusing on hazardous areas not covered by the National Weather Service.
The Marine Exchange also participated in the development and build-out of the Alaska Maritime Prevention and Response Network. The Network assists vessel owners and operators in Western Alaska with US oil pollution prevention compliance regulations through implementation of risk mitigating measures and response capabilities. In tandem with their other vessel monitoring duties, MXAK's 24/7 Ops Center manages the Network's vessel monitoring and alert system, acting as the Network's eyes, ears, and communications system. This system is the largest in the world, encompassing more than 1.5 million square miles of ocean.
The scope of the Marine Exchange of Alaska's vessel-tracking system is always growing and has recently become a source of information for addressing the challenges of mitigating the risks presented by increased maritime activity in the arctic. On July 23, 2017, The New York Times ran a cover story on the increase of vessel traffic in the arctic. They described MXAK's vessel tracking system, and the non-profit's role in arctic maritime safety. When asked for the article, Page said, "the arctic is evolving into a new maritime frontier. We're providing information on the presence of ice, whales, indigenous mariners, and hazards." The Time's article's focus on the potential for marine casualties and environmental harm were tempered by Page's perspective at the close of the article. "We need to stop worrying about what can go wrong and instead focus on preventing things from going wrong".
As sea ice melts and arctic vessel traffic increases, many people worry about the outcome of a disaster, not if, but when one strikes. "[It] is a big reassurance to us that we have our eyes on what's going on out there," said Alaska Governor Bill Walker at the MXAK building grand opening. "I'm big on prevention, and the best way to know what's going on is to know where everyone is."
The building's one-year anniversary is only weeks away now. The photos Page hung nearly a year ago proudly hang in the hallway leading to the conference room. Each features a different vessel, from fishing boats, tankers and cargo ships, to research vessels. "This is the community we serve," Page said, gesturing to the frames. "This is why we do what we do." So what's next for the Marine Exchange of Alaska? Page grins, "we're just getting up to speed!"
Anna Branch is the Director of External Affairs for the Marine Exchange of Alaska. She has been affiliated with MXAK for 15 years, during which time she has observed the rapid expansion of this non-profit maritime organization.