On March 1, the United States Coast Guard formally becomes part of the Department of Homeland Security. Maine’s waterfront interests will be watching carefully as the agency balances its traditional marine safety and fisheries enforcement duties with the added responsibilities of countering terrorist threats in domestic waters.

While the Coast Guard officially intends to maintain emphasis on both, the logistical and budgetary challenges imposed by the shifting mandates of homeland security will make that difficult to accomplish. An example is the handing-over of administration of the Maine Port Safety Forum – a statewide decision-making group of marine stakeholders chaired by the Coast Guard – to the Maine Port Authority.

The Coast Guard will still participate as co-chair of the Forum, but responsibility for the agenda, setting up meetings, distributing minutes, and general communication will now reside with the Port Authority, which provides funding, expertise, and operations oversight for movements of cargo and people.

Technically, the shift appears to present a minor change in the Port Safety Forum’s effectiveness and ability to function, but it signals that the Coast Guard wants to lighten some of its customary responsibilities. Clearing the decks of administrative duties such as the Port Safety Forum is an early harbinger that Maine’s waterfront interests could be called to assume leadership positions more in the future as the Coast Guard redefines itself in the post-9/11 world.

When the Port Safety Forum was founded in the early 1980s, it was intended that industry and state and local agencies would play more of a lead role. The original charter describes the Port Safety Forum’s mission “to serve the public interest in safe and efficient operation of vessels and marine shoreside facilities, as well as protection for the environment from marine casualties,” and by most accounts the Port Safety Forum has been successful.

“It preceded by ten years the national legislation requiring there be Port Safety committees in every state,” says Lt. Matt McCann, the Coast Guard’s chief of waterways management for Maine and New Hampshire. McCann adds that “it continues to prosper and grow at a time when its 46 counterparts across the country are dwindling.”

The true measure of its effectiveness is Maine’s marine safety record: Maine has relatively infrequent collisions, capsizings, and spills.

“One of the benefits of the Port Safety Forum is it brings in representatives from all quarters,” says McCann. “Federal, state, and local governments, ships agents, towing interests, pilots, recreational boaters, commercial fishermen can bring up any issue and talk it out – before it becomes something more.”

Capt. Mark Klopp, a Portland pilot, says with such a broad range of participants, the difference in who’s running the Forums will hardly be noticed. “The Forums I’ve been to, there’s a little input from everyone combined. There’s enough local docking pilots, Portland plots, terminal operators – a good mix of waterfront people from Portland, Penobscot Bay, downeast – there’s always enough representation there, regardless of who’s running it. Topics come up and they get answered,” says Klopp.

While the Port Safety Forum has encouraged the participation of shorefront interests over the past 20 years, leadership has always come from the Coast Guard. Its 12 to 15 board members, who have shown up at meetings and actively participated, will now be doing more of the leading themselves. Much of the actual responsibility has landed in the lap of the Maine Port Authority’s executive director, Brian Nutter. Nutter says it will probably take until April to get an official agreement with the Coast Guard put together and in place. “There will be changes, but it will not change incident reporting. That will still happen through the Coast Guard and DEP,” says Nutter.

Nutter met with the Port Authority board (which is appointed by the governor) in mid-February to discuss a new Memorandum Of Understanding with the Coast Guard that outlines everyone’s responsibilities. As yet this is still a moving target, since everyone is waiting to see what resources the Coast Guard will have at its disposal. “We want to give the Coast Guard an opportunity to see what their staffing issues will be,” says Nutter. “[The Coast Guard was] concerned about the Port Safety Forum, and want to keep it going.”

Perhaps the most obvious change as the Port Authority assumes co-chairmanship of the Forum is that the former version, officially the Maine/New Hampshire Port Safety Forum, will now be restricted to Maine. The Maine Department of Transportation will see some added administrative costs associated with setting the agenda, setting meeting times and locations, and follow-up communication. “Right now we don’t know what those will be,” says Nutter. “You add up all the hours that the Coast Guard spent on the Port Safety Forum and there’s something there. We may need to hire a part time staff person.”

As the Coast Guard finds its way at its new home in the new DHS – Department of Homeland Security – Maine’s waterfront interests are likely to be called into leadership roles more frequently. As for the Port Safety Forum, Nutter sounds optimistic. “People know this is where to go to vent. There’s been a real effort to make sure there’s room enough for everyone.”