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Arctic Shipping and Northern Harbors

International port plans span more than a century for Nome

Aerial view of the Port of Nome.

Aerial view of the Port of Nome.

Photo courtesy of Port of Nome

It may come as a surprise to most Americans—and even to many Alaskans—that the Port of Nome is a very busy place. Between May and December, hundreds of vessels make port calls at Nome. And, driven by such geopolitical trends as high demand for gold and other minerals, commodities transshipment, increased oil exploration, and even international tourism, Nome officials are striving to keep port development ahead of demand.

“With the increase in northern shipping, we’re seeing [the Nome region] as the next economic hot spot,” says Denise Michels, Nome’s six-term mayor. “We’re trying to be proactive, instead of reactive.”

The Port of Nome’s 2013 Strategic Development Plan calls for a number of projects, some of which are already completed or will be underway in 2014. Called for are the addition of more dock space for varying size vessels both at the Port and Small Boat Harbor, a deep water dock on an extended causeway, uplands development, and lobbying for using Nome as the Arctic staging area for oil spill mitigation or search-and-rescue.

Nome has a vital role as a transshipment hub for the entire region, shipping fuel and cargo to towns and villages as far north as Barrow and all the way to Lower Yukon communities.

Planners are hoping to dredge the outer harbor deeper to allow larger vessels to be serviced at the biggest port north of Dutch Harbor.

When Nome officials took their list of legislative priorities to Juneau last year, the cover of their presentation featured an image taken from an October 1907 issue of Nome’s Daily Gold Digger newspaper. The headline read: “Plan Mammoth Harbor for Snake River.” The Snake River winds through the Port and into Norton Sound.

“A big harbor was planned at the time for all the gold and silver mines,” says City Manager Josie Bahnke. “There have been plans for a hundred years to make Nome an international port.”

 

Joy Baker, Nome Harbormaster

Photo courtesy of Port of Nome

 

Alaska’s Most Northern Big Port

Joy Baker is Nome’s long-time, plain-speaking harbormaster and was overseeing Port traffic since 1990 as the city manager’s assistant, even before she got the Harbormaster title in 1997. Last year she was given yet another title, Projects Manager for Port and Harbor Development.

Baker says that around 2006, she began to see a significant rise in Port activity. “It started to spike,” she says. “It wasn’t extravagant, but you could see the spikes were there.”

Nome saw 30 dockings in 1990. In 2012, 449 vessels (ships and barges) used the port. In 2012, 61 vessels anchored off the harbor, either waiting for dock space to open or because their vessel draft was too deep. Last year, the number of anchored vessels jumped to 150.

“We have three different issues going on here in my mind,” says Baker. “We’re trying to meet the demand of our regional fleet and transshipments as a hub facility. And to accommodate that vessel demand—[allowing them] to get in and get their work done and get their materials and heavy equipment and gravel to projects and their cargo and fuel distributed to the communities. The second component is that we’re seeing more support vessels and more private vessels going over the top. We are getting some of the oil exploration research and development traffic. And then there is a third local component, which is the offshore gold rush.”

She took a breath. “I see that we will continue to grow on all of those fronts.”

From the air, the Port of Nome presents a dramatic footprint—two three thousand–foot long arms of causeway and breakwater—completed in 2006, along with a number of other harbor improvements—jut out into the Norton Sound. Along the east side of the causeway are two open cell sheet pile docks built to serve medium-sized ships and barges. City officials are working to build a third dock—the so-called Middle Dock—located between the two existing docks. Building the Middle Dock is high on the list, with demand on the existing docks described as “overwhelming.”

“We need the third dock,” says Baker. “We needed it two years ago.”

Baker says Nome already has more than half of the $9.4 million cost in hand, along with a design for the 240-foot long Middle Dock—identical to the docks on either side. If the rest of the funds can be secured, construction could start in 2014, she says. Upland development will tie the Middle Dock into the two other docks through additional cargo staging areas.

 

 

A Packed Inner Harbor

Closer to shore, beyond the causeway and breakwater, through a 150-foot wide opening, scores of smaller boats avail themselves of a number of moorages in the inner harbor. In 2007 major improvements were made, but the work goes on. The inner harbor freezes about a month earlier than the outer moorages.

The Port’s Strategic Development Plan lists an inner harbor fleet of approximately 25 fishing vessels; a variety of landing crafts, tugs, and barges working the region; sailboats; subsistence boats; and more than 128 gold dredges—ranging from homemade twenty-foot craft to eighty-foot barges with mounted excavators.

Near the mouth of the Snake River, the Port is near completion of a high ramp dock and will be dredging a portion of the moorage basin in the inner harbor/river area. The project, pegged at $4 million, is expected to be in use this year.

The high ramp dock will allow the safer and more efficient loading of cargo and heavy equipment—just the kind used by mining operations. Baker says an adjacent boat launch ramp was being used as a makeshift loading ramp, causing a bottleneck.

“Now, the high ramp [dock] can be used to move cargo, equipment, and gravel, and the launch ramp can be an actual launch ramp.”

The dredging will allow anchoring of lighter draft vessels, like recreational vessels and offshore gold dredges, which might otherwise have to raft against other vessels in places that could impede critical harbor cargo and fuel traffic.

“When you have so many little guys, the big guys can have trouble maneuvering,” Baker says.

Off the main channel is the Small Boat Harbor, which has a maximum depth of minus ten feet. There are about twenty commercial permit holders operating out of the Small Boat Harbor that fish for herring, red king crab, halibut, and salmon. There are also numerous smaller lighterage barges that transport fuel and cargo to and from coastal and Yukon villages.

Then there is the New Gold Rush. Baker says that for many years, a small offshore fleet of thirty- to forty-foot long gold dredges operated out of the Small Boat Harbor. But with high gold prices, new lease sales in the area, new recreational mining permits being issued, and the popular Discovery Channel show “Bering Sea Gold” stoking interest in mining, the number of vessels has “skyrocketed” and their size is increasing.

“There’s quite a few more [dredges] of all lengths, but a new component has attracted large craft up to 120 feet,” Baker says. “Now we have to raft up these larger vessels and that creates a problem for managing cargo and fuel out of the small boat harbor.”

Another group of users of the Port of Nome may be counterintuitive to many—small cruise ships and private yachts. Baker says two German cruise ships regularly call at Nome as one of their Alaska ports, along with several other cruise lines that alternate years in Alaska. She says they have always seen the occasional sailboats at the port, but their numbers are increasing as well.

Michels said a lot of what makes Nome valuable to visiting mariners can be found ashore. Nome offers restaurants, retail shops, hotels, internet, and postal and banking services. One can buy fresh vegetables year-round. Alaska Airlines flies in twice a day, a service made more reliable by Nome International Airport’s cross-wind runways.

“We’re the only port north of Dutch that can handle medium sized vessels,” Michels says. “The larger vessels [anything drafting over twenty-two feet] still have to anchor out—but [their passengers or crew] can come in by small boats or helicopter.”

 

Emergency and SAR

It’s this wide range of services that make Nome officials confident that a state and federal plan to develop a northern deep-water port in the area will be good for the local economy.

Next month a preliminary version of the Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port System Study Report is to be released for public review online at poa.usace.army.mil/Library/ReportsandStudies/AlaskaRegionalPortsStudy.aspx. The report, a 50-50 cost share between the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Transportation, weighed fourteen possible sites for a deep water Arctic port along three thousand miles of Arctic coast, from the Kuskokwim River to the Canadian border.

The study builds on previous assessments such as the Northern Waters Task Force, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, and the Institute of the North’s series of workshops.

With northern waters becoming more accessible, the traffic over the Northern Sea Route is increasing. Offshore oil exploration, new or expanded mining, and village development are all contributing to the increase in vessel traffic. With that traffic comes the possibility of an oil spill or the need for search and rescue. The nearest USCG vessel is a week away at Kodiak. Rescue aircraft is an eight hour flight away.

The report will recommend that a deep water port be developed at Nome, or at two other points to the north—at Cape Riley or the old US Coast Guard (USCG) LORAN station on Point Spencer at Port Clarence.

“We are looking at each of them as stand-alone alternatives and as a combination of one or more or all three,” says Michael Lukshin, a port and harbors engineer for DOT.

Lorraine Cordova, project leader for the US Army Corps of Engineers, says field studies were conducted in June and scoping meetings were held in Nome, Teller, and Brevig Mission. More environmental work was performed later in the summer, as well. Economists are analyzing alternative plans for the three sites.

“What we’ve said is that all fourteen [of the sites studied] need enhanced infrastructure,” Cordova says. “The others haven’t been ruled out, but we are proceeding with this to get one project done and then the state could elect to move on to the next one.” She notes that a 2010 survey of marine infrastructure needs identified more than one thousand projects.

“By the end of 2014, we will have a final [report] ready for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for the Corps of Engineers to sign and send on up to Congress,” Cordova says.

 

Interest in Port Clarence

North of Nome, the former USCG LORAN station at Port Clarence sits on land that the Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC) has been seeking since 1976 as part of its ANCSA allotments. Port Clarence had a historical importance as a port of refuge for 19th Century whaling ships, but BSNC shareholders have cultural connections that far predate that, says Matt Ganley, BSNC’s vice president of resources and external affairs.

When USCG decommissioned the LORAN station in 2010, BSNC stepped up efforts to acquire the property, hoping to preserve as much of the infrastructure as possible. The station had housing and ancillary buildings for twenty-four people. There is a 7,500-foot airstrip, 4,500 feet of it paved. Port Clarence stays ice-free longer than ports farther north and already has deep water anchorages.

Ganley says there has been a huge uptick in interest in developing an Arctic port in the last few years, “but before all that was circulating out there, we realized that [Point Spencer] was a significant property in the big picture for the region.”

“If you look at a lands status map, all the way from Shishmaref through Norton Sound, the whole coastline is owned by village corporations and BSNC, the area’s regional corporation,” Ganley says. “From a property standpoint and from a geographic standpoint, the regional corporation and the communities in the region have a lot in the game of what occurs in Arctic waters.”

Ganley says BSNC seeks to develop disaster and search-and-rescue response capabilities at the site and staging support for oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Other possibilities include fuel and equipment storage. Despite the complexities of the land transfer at present, BSNC has developed preliminary build-out plans, completed a draft economic feasibility study, and has been consulting with industry and private firms, such as Crowley Maritime.

“Along the coastline, people have been at risk for a long time,” Ganley says. “Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel are shipped through the Bering Straits and to the villages now. Fortunately, we have companies like Crowley Maritime, Northland Services, and others that know the area and are very good at what they do.”

As Arctic ship traffic increases, so does the likelihood of less experienced and less careful shippers operating in the area. “We have been living with risks, but we really don’t even have the capacity to respond to those adequately,” Ganley says.

 

Regional Accord

Nome’s Mayor Michels’ day job is director of transportation of Kawerak, Inc., a not-for-profit service organization, where she works for the development and implementation of strategies for transportation and public infrastructure in the Arctic. Her two jobs enjoy a lot of synergy, she says.

“Last year, the City of Nome and Kawerak went to Washington, DC and provided federal priorities to lobby for,” she says. “Our interests lined up with each other.”

Bahnke says Nome has supported BSNC’s pursuit of the Port Clarence LORAN site. Development in its neighborhood will only increase the demand for the supplies and services—like groceries and jet aircraft services—that only Nome can provide.

“It’s only going to complement what our operations already are in Nome,” she says.

Harbormaster Baker says there could be a redirection of some of the fuel that is now being stored in Nome and redistributed to the Upper Arctic to be routed out of a fuel storage facility at Port Clarence. But instead of viewing such a development as competition, she sees that as a change that could help economic issues for everyone.

“If they can save money for those upper Arctic coastal communities, like Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wales and Diomede—we’re all for that because fuel costs are already too high in our region,” she says. Fuel storage in Nome will still be at capacity for servicing the regional communities and the home-ported vessel fleets, as well as resupply for the regional and Arctic marine traffic.

Nome officials have been advocating for the USCG to maintain a fast response vessel at Nome. But Port Clarence and Nome are not the only Arctic communities being considered. The USCG has spent the last three years testing three communities as possible forward operating bases: Nome in 2010, Barrow in 2011, and Kotzebue in 2012.

BSNC’s Ganley says his company is hoping that being able to stage fuel and heavy equipment at Port Clarence could help industries develop in the region—mining in particular.

“I’ve had long discussions with Denise [Michels] on this,” Ganley says. “I think the region and the state can really benefit from the planned development of Port Clarence and Nome in a complementary way.”

Alaskan author and journalist Will Swagel writes from Sitka.

This first appeared in the February 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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