Morro Bay's Coast Guard station helps in fight against drugs

mfountain@thetribunenews.comFebruary 27, 2014 

Here's a closer look at an abandoned panga boat found Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, on the beach near the San Simeon campground. Authorities believe the boat was used to send thousands of pounds of marijuana ashore. Read more »

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The U.S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay is feeling the same budgetary pinch as the rest of the agency, said Morro Bay station Boatswain Mate Chief Bryan Paplinski.

In San Luis Obispo County, however, drug interdiction is not necessarily suffering because of the federal cuts.

San Luis Obispo County officials only discovered their first known panga boat landing in May 2012. According to official statistics from the federal Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in the fiscal year 2012 — between Sept. 31, 2011, and Oct. 1, 2012 — San Luis Obispo County experienced two maritime events, resulting in 14 arrests and 534 pounds of marijuana seized.

In 2012-13, that number jumped to five seagoing drug events, which resulted in 17 apprehensions, and 2,124 pounds of marijuana seized. So far in 2013-14, the numbers have continued to rise with 24 arrests and 11,475 pounds of marijuana seized after three vessels were caught.

Coast Guard drug interdictions, however, do not regularly occur in waters off the San Luis Obispo coast, mainly because the Morro Bay Coast Guard station is designated primarily for search and rescue.

The station is staffed by 27 officers and its two vessels are 47-foot motor lifeboats designed for rescue situations, able to travel up to 27 knots and weather 20-foot surf, manned by a maximum crew of four, Paplinski said.

Policing the waters 200 to 400 miles offshore where panga boats travel requires a cutter, defined as a vessel 65-feet or longer with the ability to patrol at sea for a number of months.

As part of its search-and-rescue function, the Morro Bay facility is also designated a “surf station,” with a crew trained to deal with violent seas. Ideally, Paplinski said, the Coast Guard would have one for every 30 miles of coastline. The nearest, however, are in Santa Barbara and Monterey.

“We’re really literally out here all by ourselves,” Paplinski said. “And that’s why we depend and work with different agencies.”

The Coast Guard declined to provide its drug seizure records, but if it did, they would not reflect the situation in San Luis Obispo County, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers.

On the Central Coast, panga boat discoveries have occurred onshore, and fallen into the jurisdiction of either the county Sheriff’s Office or ICE.

“There are a lot of misconceptions and folks seemingly annoyed that we’re not patrolling and stopping these boats. And I can understand,” Eggers said. “But in reality, even given the budget cuts, that’s never really been the case here.”

When local panga boat discoveries occur, the Coast Guard is there to patrol the nearby waters for pollutants, oil or other contraband.

“But if we do see a suspicious vessel, we would absolutely come alongside and board that boat,” Paplinski said.

Moreover, the Coast Guard’s hands are tied by restrictions on how many hours each station, or unit, is allowed to operate in the water because of the cuts.

“So we’re being more judicious with our boats, and that includes training,” Eggers said. “We’ve worked to manage that by doing as much as we can at the station.”

Moving forward, Eggers said the financial situation is still murky; the federal budget has yet to formally pass, and the Coast Guard is bracing itself by preparing for an additional 10 to 20 percent decrease in case 2012 levels are not restored.

“You can always recover from having more money than you thought than less,” he said.

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