Coast Guard Station Ketchikan and Coast Guard Cutter Adelie boat crews assisted in dewatering and towing a fishing vessel that began taking on water near Ketchikan. (Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard)

Mariners in distress are without a decades-old means of contacting the Coast Guard in much of coastal Alaska. The federal search and rescue agency says its VHF signal is down, making communication on Channel 16 unreliable. The issue had been going on all summer and there’s no solution in sight.

As Sitka fishermen go, Matt Donohoe is somewhat of a veteran. This summer he was trolling for salmon when he heard a distress call over his VHF radio.

“A boat called mayday, but it was on Channel 16, and I expected the Coast Guard to respond and they didn’t,” he says.

It turns out it wasn’t too serious — the skipper had broken down and was drifting. Donohoe continued to try and reach the Coast Guard over his radio as well with little luck. He was relieved that nobody’s lives were at risk that day.

“But there’s a problem with the infrastructure and it needs to be addressed before somebody dies,” he says.

His story isn’t unique. In fact, fishermen across Southeast Alaska have been reporting similar problems. The Coast Guard first publicly acknowledged the problem last month. It began broadcasting automated notices this summer to mariners. Guys like Joe Donohue who troll around Sitka.

“I wrote down where the outages were and it was from Yakutat all the way down to Cape Edgecumbe,” Donohue says. “I had a bunch of friends that were just finishing up with seining, were getting ready to go longlining, and I thought ‘boy I hope they get that fixed’.”

It hasn’t been fixed. At least eight Coast Guard towers are down in Alaska. The outages are affecting Prince William Sound all the way down to Sitka and other Southeast communities.

Some of these repeaters have been completely down since June. 

Coast Guard Lt. Scott McCann says repairing these remote towers isn’t a simple task. 

“In most cases these towers are only accessible by helicopter. And in that case, the helicopter can only fly when the weather is conducive to flying up to the top of the mountain and dropping off personnel and parts,” he says.

But this is the Coast Guard, isn’t flying helicopters in remote stormy conditions what they do?

“True, the Coast Guard has a reputation for flying in nasty weather, but these tower maintenance contracts are with other agencies. So they have different flight standards and you want them to be safe when they go out there,” McCann says.

That contractor is Lynxnet, LLC, a Virginia-based subsidiary of NANA, the regional Native corporation based in Kotzebue. Neither the company nor the Native corporation responded to requests for comment. 

But if inclement weather held up the contractor in the summer, the dark and frigid winter certainly won’t help.

In the meantime, the Coast Guard has been advising mariners to carry satellite phones and high frequency radios. 

Those are much more expensive. The industry wants assurances if they need the Coast Guard they can use the radio that’s found on every deck of every boat in the fleet. Not to mention anglers and hunters with only handheld equipment.

“VHF radios have been for decades the primary go-to source to get a hold of the Coast Guard,” says Jerry Dzugan, the director of the Alaska Marine Education Safety Association in Sitka. “That’s what we’ve taught everyone in our classes for decades, so what they’re saying is ‘Well you’re going to have to have these other things instead,’ and that’s unacceptable.”

The Coast Guard also recommends mariners have working EPIRBs. Those are Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons. But Dzugan says that’s a last resort option.

“Fishermen don’t want to hit the panic button if you don’t really have to. Which means that it’s going to delay a problem,” he says.

EPIRBs send a continuous radio signal, sending the alarm to search and rescue units the exact location of the vessel in distress. But VHF radios allow mariners to check in with the Coast Guard before a situation gets to that point.

“The Coast Guard’s always saying ‘if you have a problem let us know, even if it’s not an emergency yet, so we can keep an eye on you’,” Dzugan says.

The Coast Guard’s Lt. McCann urges mariners to be patient. He says they’ll be fixed — eventually. 

“These towers are here to stay, VHF is here to stay,” he says.

Fishermen and industry groups have been in contact with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office to try and speed up the process. Murkowski’s office released a short statement saying it’s aware of the issues.

With additional reporting from KCAW’s Katherine Rose in Sitka.