Watching the water
New baywide surveillance system will aid maritime enforcement
Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

Boaters on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are now under the watchful eye of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, thanks to a new network of cameras and radar.

The state agency last week officially launched the first phase of its Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network, which ties together government and private sector surveillance in the name of homeland security. As an added benefit, officials said, the network will aid in search and rescue missions and in catching illegal activities on the water like oyster poaching.

"It will allow officers on patrol to view not only what's around the bend in the river but what's over the horizon," NRP Superintendent George F. Johnson IV said Dec. 15 at a media briefing in Annapolis.

The Natural Resources Police command center at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to dispatch aid for maritime-related emergencies and now to monitor the camera and radar network. The dozen or so desks at the secure facility face several large screens that display feeds from the cameras and radar tied into the system.

"That's a huge undertaking," said Tim Bowman, the project manager.

There are new cameras now viewing a substantial portion of the channel leading into Baltimore Harbor as well as an area on the bay and the lower Potomac River. For security reasons the exact locations of the new cameras are not being disclosed.

Some cameras will be able to zoom in on a boat's registration numbers from up to two miles away, Bowman said.

Eventually the system is intended to tie into other existing surveillance networks run by local governments, Navy bases, Coast Guard stations and some private systems associated with power plants and energy companies to give Natural Resources Police video feeds around the entire bay region. State Highway Administration bridge cameras already are linked in.

"The information is shared among agencies and other entities," Johnson said.

The radar allows state agencies — and anyone else given access to the system via the Internet — to view boat traffic on the bay and its tributaries, Bowman said. NRP dispatchers monitoring the radar can pull up data on any registered commercial boats and find out information including the ship's name, its destination and its cargo using the transponders required to be placed on such vessels.

An area can be marked and designated as an alarm zone that would trigger a notice if a boat enters. This will have practical applications not only for sites like Dominion Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas facility, Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, both in Lusby, and Patuxent River Naval Air Station but also for oyster sanctuaries throughout the bay's watershed, Bowman said.

"Everybody is seeing the same thing at the same time," which allows for coordination of resources in an emergency, Bowman said.

Bowman said he has been working out the details with Navy officials, particularly at Pax River and the Randle Cliff Radar facility at the Navy Research Lab Chesapeake Bay Division near Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County.

"They want to share their radars with us," he said, adding that those may be integrated with the new state maritime system by the end of January.

"We want to offer this for free to our agencies," Bowman said.

Currently the radar monitoring is from roughly a few miles south of Cove Point north to Baltimore, he said.

The recently expanded oyster sanctuaries in Maryland's portion of the bay and its tributaries are off-limits to harvesting, and the surveillance network is intended to guard against poaching.

Johnson said that eventually he would like to see watermen's commercial fishing boats have transponders that also would identify their vessels.

Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association, said Wednesday afternoon that banking on watermen — especially what he called those few "bad apples" who repeatedly violate the law — to buy transponders for their boats was "wishful thinking" but that he supported the new maritime enforcement network in general.

"We're quite a bit in favor of it," he said, as long as the images being surveyed are accompanied by more officers to enforce the law. The association has lobbied the state to hire more patrol officers to help crack down on poaching, he said.

"Just being visible cuts down a lot of the crime," Zinn said.

Johnson said the cameras are not meant to replace personnel on the water.

"This is just another set of eyes," he said.

Some of the $2.4 million in grants related to maritime security, including $1 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that helped set up the new network also went to buy six new Natural Resources Police vessels to help with patrols.

The surveillance system will be able to track rescue and patrol boats, too, so that a dispatcher can quickly determine who is closest to the scene of an accident or possible illegal activity.