Chance Moore, a marine patrol deputy with the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office, pulls his vessel alongside that of Scott Kollings, a lone Portlander who came out Tuesday to fish Buoy 10.
Tying up the sheriff’s boat and Kollings’ 16-footer was Chief Petty Officer Shawn Copp, a lead member of th U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Columbia River vessel boarding teams.
The two lawmen, working together to police Buoy 10, embody a recent partnership between their two agencies – born of slashed state and federal funding, but resulting in expanded power on the river.
“When you go out there, and you’re seeing 20 to 50 boats on the river, and suddenly you’re seeing thousands, it’s a big jump in productivity,” said Moore, who started on marine patrol last year.
The two agencies have been patrolling the Columbia River together since January, with a rotating lineup of one to two guardsman going out on each county boat almost daily. They’re part of a four-pronged approach during the Coast Guard’s Buoy 10 operation to keep the waterway safe for recreational and commercial traffic.
Buoy 10 is the popular late summer salmon fishery running 16 miles from the navigational Red Buoy 10 near the Mouth of the Columbia River to a line drawn from Tongue Point to Rocky Point, Wash.
“The results speak for themselves,” said Cmdr. William Gibbons, head of the Buoy 10 operation and based out of Air Station Astoria. He referenced the absence of any fatalities since 2001, when seven people died during Buoy 10 and sparked the creation of the Coast Guard’s operation the following season.
Gibbons said the Coast Guard has the Auxiliary manning the docks and checking vessels as they go in. Station Cape Disappointment does patrols and responds as needed to emergencies.
And for the first year, the Astoria-homeported cutter Alert, which has faced operational cutbacks from federal sequestration, sends out its own crews on small response boats.
Keeping an eye out
Moore and Copp inspected Kollings’ vessel, checking for all the necessary licensing and safety equipment, including boater safety education cards, life jackets, throwable life preservers, fire extinguishers, whistles and the like. Moore, who has taken a special interest in helping state agencies enforce fishing policies, checked Kollings’ line. He and Copp discovered barbed hooks, which have been outlawed since January. While Copp told Kollings he had passed his safety inspection and awarded him a federal decal, Moore wrote a $110 citation for the hooks, Kollings’ first offense.
“After you’ve been doing this for a while, you get a sixth sense,” said Moore, who also gave Kollings a state inspection decal. “I knew we would get a citation off that boat.”
In passing, Moore and Copp assess the condition of boats, their licensure, passengers, equipment and whether they’ve been inspected recently.
“Sometimes you’ll have your blatant violators, and sometimes you’ll just need to educate the boaters,” said Copp, who carries a boarding officer job aid kit that tells him what to look for, including life jackets on all children younger than 13.
For years, said Moore, the Oregon State Marine Board provided deckhands for his agency’s boats, allowing more patrols by deputies. When funding was cut two to three years back and the deckhands disappeared, he said, it brought water coverage down from seven to four days a week for the county.
In January he contacted the Coast Guard, which had sustained its own cuts operations from federal sequestration and fewer cargo vessel boardings, and struck a deal.
Moore said the expanded law enforcement capabilities and equipment intrigued him. The sheriff’s office needs probable cause to board vessels on the river, he said, while the Coast Guard can perform what it calls “cold hits” on random vessels to make sure they’re in compliance with boating laws. The Coast Guard also brings additional equipment, including portable intoximeters, narcotics identifiers and evidence collection kits.
Copp said the joint patrols will do anywhere from 10 to 20 vessel inspections per eight-hour shift, depending on the number of boats on the water and other operations during the day.
“The deepest part of the river is the channel, and that’s where the fish are,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Whitney Crookham of the Alert.
For the first year, he and other crew members from the Coast Guard cutter Alert, moored at the 17th Street dock for renovations, are helping to police Buoy 10 and the thin line between recreational and commercial traffic as part of Operation Make Way. Lt. Lee Crusius, the operations chief aboard the Alert, said that separate of sequestration, the vessel’s own schedule worked out for its crew to help with Buoy 10.
Rule 9 of the Coast Guard’s navigational rules, a high priority during Buoy 10, states that “a vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.”
“It’s more just along the courtesy lines of, ‘Hey; this big guy’s coming through, and you’re perfectly capable of moving out of the way,’” said Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Abbea Hoehamer, another boat operator from the Alert going out on patrols.
Hoehamer said her patrols try to avoid bothering people in the process of fishing. Some fishers will play tricks to avoid contact with the Coast Guard, she said, such as dropping their lines or pretending not to notice a pursuit. She, Moore and others said Buoy 10 is more mellow than boating nearer to Portland, where more people, recreation, alcohol and general craziness comes into play. And by all accounts, the operation has been a relative success.
Out of more than 8,000 boats contacted during the fishery, the Coast Guard has so far only terminated two voyages. One was a boat operated by an ESPN Seattle radio personality fishing with barbed hooks, no boater education card, a defective fire extinguisher and no throwable life preservers.
“As years progress, and you make more contact with people, people are going to be safer through education,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Morrison, another boarding team member who goes out on patrol with the deputies.
The Buoy 10 operation ends Sept. 3, just after the fishery. “The vessel traffic wanes with the salmon,” said Gibbons, adding that most activity and much of the Coast Guard’s fishery operations shift upriver into Columbia and Multnomah counties.
Moore said his patrols with the Coast Guard continue past Buoy 10, focusing next on the crab fishery, slowing down significantly in the winter but continuing year round.
“To be honest with you, this is probably the best job in the county,” said Moore, who said most people they contact appreciate the presence of law enforcement. “It’s refreshing to be out on the water with people who like police.”