Every day, millions of dollars worth of products move in and out of the Port of Mobile, and with around 95 percent of the world’s commerce flowing via vessel, the economic implications are staggering for both Mobile and the entire country.

Just under a hundred seaports in the United States handle approximately 2 billion tons of cargo annually, and locally, Mobile’s port receives more than 64 million tons from nearly 1,432 ships in an average year.

As the ninth-largest seaport by volume, the economic impact is significant, but so is the potential loss if any incident slows down or stops the processes that keep commerce flowing.

“Internationally, locally and across the United States, we have to ensure that our ports are secure and safe,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Brandstaetter, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Coast Guard. “It affects everything, not just the port. A lot of goods and services come into the port that companies elsewhere depend on to do their business.”

However, Brandstaetter said that like much of the federal government, the Coast Guard’s role in the nation’s ports changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 moved the Coast Guard under the purview of the newly created Department of Homeland Security and made safety a top priority at the nation’s seaports.

Today, the Coast Guard works with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Alabama State Port Authority, other government agencies and private businesses to ensure business flows smoothly in and out of Mobile.

“Nobody can do it alone,” Brandstaetter said. “Through the facilities we work with and the interagency approach we collaborate with, it takes a strong industry-government partnership to make sure any risks and threats are identified to ensure we avoid anything that could shut down the transportation system.”  

U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Mobile
Because homeland security is now the priority, the Coast Guard is the lead law enforcement agency at U.S. ports, giving final authorization before any ship can enter.

Statistics from the U. S. Coast Guard's 2014 Port State Control report.

Statistics from the U. S. Coast Guard’s 2014 Port State Control report.

According to its own annual reporting, the Coast Guard performed 289 safety examinations and 269 security examinations in Mobile’s port during 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — resulting in no major control issues and only seven detentions. The detained individuals were not necessarily a threat but were detained because of such issues as vessel safety, for example.

Brandstaetter said he was unable to discuss any “specific incidents” locally but, speaking in general terms, said most of the security breaches seen in Mobile happen on land.

“The rate of security breaches, at least in Mobile and our area, tend to fall more on the side of people wandering onto a restricted facility or making a wrong turn,” Brandstaetter said. “All the reporting requirements are still the same, though. All that information has to be put into several intelligence databases to look for patterns or anything else that might be showing up.”

As for the vessels, the Coast Guard reserves the right to board any ship in U.S. waters at any point. That said, not every ship coming in gets boarded.
Brandstaetter said the level of risk a ship poses is calculated by several factors that take into account its country of origin, cargo and crew. The percentage of vessels boarded also depends on the “maritime security” or MARSEC level.

Aside from obvious threats such as terrorists, stowaways or foreign defectors, the Coast Guard is also tasked with making sure ships entering the port are in compliance with both federal and international shipping standards.

Through routine checks, the Coast Guard works to ensure the safety of sailors and those in the port, but those inspections also help prevent and detect environmental issues that could cause harm along the coastline or in the open sea.

“When we go on board a vessel, part of our process is to look at all their environmental control systems to ensure they’re not being tampered with,” Brandstaetter said. “For example, anything they do with oil on board a vessel, they’re required to record in an oil record book. If you’re doing something negligent or against the law, eventually the oil record book isn’t going to match up with what we see during the inspection.”

Though Brandstaetter never mentioned it specifically, a Coast Guard inspection in Mobile led to the federal conviction of a Norwegian company, DSD Shipping, just three months ago.

After nearly a year in court, a jury found DSD Shipping guilty of knowingly failing to maintain accurate oil and garbage record books, obstruction of justice and witness tampering in November — charges outlined in indictments in Alabama and Louisiana.

Sentencing in the case isn’t scheduled until March, but maritime crimes can come with severe fines. The Coast Guard and other agencies can levy their own fines against companies as well, but Brandstaetter said the vast majority stay in compliance for their own benefit.

“We have fines that we can levy against people that break the law, but the cost of delaying your business or the cost of not getting business because you’re not in compliance is much higher than any fine the Coast Guard can levy upon you,” he said. “It behooves the regulated entities to be in compliance. So it becomes self-policing in a way, but that doesn’t mean the oversight isn’t needed.”

Alabama State Port Authority
Part of the reason a multiagency effort was outlined in the MTSA is that it helped cover gaps in the authority and ability of individual agencies. Currently the Alabama State Port Authority plays an integral role in the safety of individuals coming, going and working on the waterfront. Like the Coast Guard, ASPA’s responsibilities have drastically increased since 9/11.

Prior to the MTSA, ASPA spent less $1 million per year on security at the port, but today that figure has ballooned to nearly $6.3 million annually. According to ASPA President Jimmy Lyons, the figure represents the operating cost of funding security guards, an internal police department and an extensive camera system.

Altogether, more than 300 motion-sensing cameras monitor restricted port facilities in Mobile, helping to quickly detect any intrusion — be it a terrorist or a confused pedestrian.

“One of the most common intrusions we get is people,” Lyons said. “Sometimes it’s people who are just intoxicated, other times it might be vagrants or something like that. Usually our cameras pick them up, we dispatch our officers and they get a night in jail, usually for criminal trespassing.”

Though it isn’t required by federal law, ASPA typically arrests any unauthorized intruder, as outlined in the port’s security plan. Similarly, every ship and facility using the port is required to submit a security plan to the Coast Guard.

The Alabama State Port Authority Police Department employs 41 sworn officers and 12 communications officers — all with the same training and authority as other police forces. Those individuals and a handful of contracted security workers monitor the various facilities and points of entry to the ASPA properties.

“Our police will work with the Coast Guard and they’ll come and use drug dogs to randomly search vehicles. Obviously, we don’t want drugs being brought in here, but we also don’t want people using drugs on the port for safety reasons,” Lyons said. “Occasionally they’ll catch a small amount of drugs or a weapon — maybe a truck driver has a pistol or something. Those are always things we look at.”

U.S. Customs and Board Protection.

U.S. Customs and Board Protection.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection
While the ASPA police and other local law enforcement agencies assist in finding drugs and prohibited weapons, the main challenge of preventing contraband falls on the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection. Scott Walters is the assistant port director in Mobile, but currently serves as the port’s acting director.

Walters said CBP enforces the laws and regulations of about 40 federal agencies by seizing contraband, preventing pests from entering the country and by enforcing immigration and intellectual property laws.

“Every vessel that’s coming directly from a foreign country, we board,” Walters said. “We have to do immigration checks on all of the crew, but we [also] do physical searches of the vessel to whatever extent we deem appropriate or necessary.”

Like the Coast Guard, Walters said the CBP has a policy against discussing any specific incident, but the across the country the agency searched more than 25 million truck, rail and sea containers in 2014 — seizing 680,000 pounds of illegal drugs and more than 300,000 rounds of ammunition at the nation’s ports, borders and railways.

In Mobile alone, 130,000 shipping containers arrived at the port last year. Walters said the priority placed on searching those containers depends on several factors, including their port of origin, any previous stops and their contents.

Checking for “bugs, thugs and drugs,” Walters said the CBP agents use mobile X-ray technology, radiation detectors and hands-on inspections to examine containers arriving at the Port of Mobile.

“It’s not just the drugs, bad guys and agriculture, now we’re looking for trademark violations or copyright violations as well,” Walters said. “There’s a million different things we’re targeting.”

Around the country, it’s not uncommon to see drug seizures in U.S. ports. Last August, CBP agents in Baltimore intercepted 310 pounds of cocaine, and just a month later another 363 pounds were discovered in shipments coming into Philadelphia.

While Walters wouldn’t discuss specific occurrences in the local port, Lyons said finding drugs shipped to Mobile is fairly uncommon because of the type of vessels that arrive here. Still, he said the amount of money involved in the drug trade means suppliers are constantly trying to find new delivery opportunities in the U.S.

“There have been some interdictions here, but it’s pretty rare,” Lyons said. “I usually see reports of incidents that have occurred in other ports in a lot of our trade press, but we don’t have a lot of container ships that are coming in from high-risk areas for drugs.”

While drugs don’t appear to be a common find, Walters said containers coming from China are currently a priority for CBP agents because of another threat — the Asian gypsy moth. Spawning from caterpillars that feed on 600 species of trees and shrubs, the moth is currently such a worry that ships not previously fumigated for them are kept at sea until an onboard inspection can occur.

While insects may seem less significant than a container full of cocaine, agricultural pests are something the CPB takes seriously. In 2014, the agency reported more than 155,000 cases of invasive pests showing up in cargo shipments around the country.

While most are kept out, it doesn’t take much to find examples of species slipping through the cracks — like the red fire ant widely believed to have entered the U.S. through the Port of Mobile in the 1930s.

“Now fire ants are everywhere, because once those species get in, you can’t get rid of them,” Walters said. “There have also been issues with wood-boring pests. Now, all wooden pallets have to be heat treated, and if they don’t meet the requirements, they have go back on the ship to be exported. We won’t ever let people burn them here.”

The same approach is used to control diseases and other illnesses that could potentially enter the country carried by sailors. Walters said the first thing CBP agents ask any ship captain is, “Are there any problems, and is anybody sick?”

While health checks occur regularly for the safety of the crew and the general public, Walters said protocols CBP follows are even more heightened during significant epidemics, such as the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014.

“When the Ebola outbreak first started, we met with the ASPA, the Coast Guard and the Mobile County Health Department to get a game plan. There was a lot of collaboration and planning,” he said. “Luckily for us, we didn’t have hardly any vessels coming from that area in the time frame that it would have been a problem.”

Overall, though, Walters said a lot of companies address possible customs issues before their arrival, which can make their processing time shorter and more efficient.

One initiative, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), establishes several protocols in a ship’s homeport to prevent complications here. It’s quite extensive, but the program’s benefits stateside have prompted several international businesses to adopt it as a best practice.

Keeping with the overall theme of partnership, Walters said agreements like C-TPAT benefit the shipping companies and also the CBP by limiting the amount of time agents spend boarding and inspecting vessels needlessly.

“We do a lot of outreach with shipping companies and the vessel agencies, because they want to help us as well. Time is money to them and this is a way to get their stuff processed and out of here as soon as possible,” Walters said. “If they know what channels and obstacles they have to overcome, a lot of times they have everything we need in order beforehand.”