The passenger cruise ship Crystal Serenity, with more than 1,700 passengers onboard, became the largest commercial cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage in August 2016.
As a result of increasing maritime traffic and human activity in the Arctic, the U.S. Coast Guard is keeping a close eye on their ability to maneuver in the region. The Coast Guard covers a wide range of missions, from search and rescue, icebreaking, and marine environmental protection to port security and international crisis response. Last week, members of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing to discuss current missions, resources, and budgetary needs. Chairman Dan Sullivan (AK) stressed the importance of maritime security to national and economic security, pointing out ice loss in the Arctic, which increases demand for search and rescue capability, vessel traffic safety, and fisheries resource management.
Budget cuts were a central topic of discussion. Early reports indicated significant budget cuts for the Coast Guard, but the president’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2018 leaves Coast Guard allocation decisions to the Department of Homeland Security. Admiral Paul Zukunft (Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard) said costs would be difficult to recoup on ongoing missions, including the acquisition of a new National Security Cutter whose construction is already underway. He listed maritime security teams (units charged with protecting ports) as an area too important to reduce in size or scope. He also highlighted oil spill prevention as his highest priority for the “modest” funding in research and said the Coast Guard is working with the Department of Homeland Security in Science and Technology Directorate to look at new spill prevention technologies. Responding to questions from Senator Maria Cantwell (WA) about $150 million included in the president’s budget request for the construction of a new ship with icebreaking capabilities (a longstanding priority due to a shortage), Admiral Zukunft replied that the timeline for construction could be accelerated. Admiral Zukunft stressed the importance of adequate funding in the upcoming fiscal year, reminding the committee about the threat of weapons hidden in container ships, saying “We don’t have to wait until it’s under the Golden Gate Bridge.”