JIS News

At the mention of the coast guard, one immediately conjures up an image of maritime law enforcers aboard go-fast boats, negotiating the choppy waters in hot pursuit of drug traffickers or other criminals, trying to use the expanse of the sea to escape the arms of the law.
But while law enforcement is indeed a primary function of the coast guard’s duties, Commander Sydney Innis, who has served as the Head of the Jamaica Coast Guard since 2002, says that maritime safety takes precedence above all else. “Certainly, maritime safety like somebody lost at sea is going to take priority over law enforcement,” he informs JIS News, noting that search and rescue operations ranks as the agency’s foremost responsibility.
On average, he says, there are about 60 search and rescue cases annually and of that number, “we in fact successfully conclude in the high 90 percentages.”
Of 61 such cases in the 2003/2004 fiscal year, Commander Innis reveals that 51 were closed while six are pending. In 2004/2005, of 61 lost-at-sea reports made, 54 rescues were closed, with seven pending cases, while the 2005/2006 fiscal year saw 52 search and rescue operations taking place, with 48 cases closed and four cases pending.
He explains that for rescue operations, which are beyond local capability, “quite often we make contact with the United States (US) Coast Guard District 7, especially for air support and usually once they have an aircraft available, they put it at our disposal to assist us”.
From the local end, he says, “our limitation is the long time it takes us to get the cases reported to us and the very rudimentary communication and navigation systems that our canoe operators and fishermen have.”
“Even if they are able to make contact with us, they have no idea where they are,” the commander adds. Generally, most search and rescue involves fishermen, who make up an estimated 85 per cent of reported cases, while the remaining 15 per cent comprise yachtsmen, pleasure craft, sailboats, and aircraft, which might send off alert beacons.
Pointing to other maritime focus areas of the Coast Guard, Commander Innis details that these range from the enforcement of fisheries and wildlife protection laws, and pollution control, including overseeing the clean-up of chemical spills. He says the Coast Guard’s responsibility in the event of a spill, is to manage the situation in collaboration with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM).
Since 2003, he says the agency has responded to 30 incidents involving the spills of oil or lubricants. “We have to be there to observe that it is being (dealt with) in accordance with government regulations,” Commander Innis notes.
Additionally, support is given to government agencies and the non-government agencies that have an interest in advancing the well being of the users of the marine environment, and the preservation of the marine environment in general.
“We work with entities like the University of the West Indies, the environmental non governmental organisations that have an interest in preserving the marine environment, Nature Conservancy and so on. We support their activities at sea,” he states.
In the area of fisheries enforcement, records show that over the last three years, the Coast Guard has seized and apprehended 10 illegal fishing vessels that were fishing contrary to their licences. Since 2003, approximately 110 kilograms of lobster and 242 kilograms of illegal acquired conch have been seized.
A large part of the Coast Guard duties involves enforcement of customs laws, and as such, there is close collaboration with the Port Authority, Customs Department, and the Narcotics Branch of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).
“We share information and intelligence and as much as possible,” Commander Innis says, noting that in the case of the Port Authority, members of the Coast Guard sit on their security committees and meet regularly whenever review exercises or processes are being carried out.
For agencies such as the Customs Department and JCF, “we do joint operations with them where their people are embarked on our vessels and we go out, we do things together. we send people to be trained with them and they send people to be trained with us in terms of concealed compartments on vessels,” he says.
“In respect of the Narcotics Police, they feed us information when they have it, and we give them feedback, we do joint operations with them as well.
For example, when we apprehend drug runners, we don’t prosecute the cases, we are just ground witnesses, it is the Narcotics Police, who we hand off to, and they do the prosecution. That is how we do things, and we have a pretty good working relationship with all these agencies,” Commander Innis informs.
As the Coast Guard carries out its duties in protecting the marine environment, a lot of time is spent patrolling the coastal waters. Commander Innis says that the time spent at sea depends on the class of vessels being utilised, with the routine patrol being eight days for large offshore vessels. Smaller patrol vessels, which are utilised at the out-stations in Montego Bay, Discovery Bay, Port Antonio, Black River, and the Pedro Cays, usually spend no more than 48 hours at sea.
“Jamaica’s seas are fairly choppy. so you wouldn’t want to keep the small in-shore patrol vessels at sea for longer than 48 hours,” Commander Innis explains.Then there are the smaller vessels in the Coast Guard’s fleet, which are about 10 metres in length and similar to the specifications of go-fast vessels.
“We hear that something is happening, 10, 15, 20 miles down the coastline, they can go quickly, get there very quickly and they can go anywhere that the target vessels are going,” the Commander says.A department of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), the Coast Guard was formed in August 1963 as part of the JDF’s support and service battalion but in 1976, became an autonomous unit of the JDF.
“I think initially, it was purely a search and rescue agency then as the growing of marijuana especially took hold in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we had to play a bigger role in law enforcement and that has expanded as time goes from a very small unit to now over 200 persons,” Commander Innis tells JIS News.
Inasmuch as the Coast Guard has managed with its existing staff complement, the Commander acknowledges that there is need to extend beyond the current numbers. “We manage at the moment but we would like some more numbers and in fact, there is a plan to increase our numbers,” he discloses, adding that a Strategic Defence Review that was done of the JDF has made recommendations for the expansion of the staff.
While the review has to go before Parliament and discussed before a final decision is made, he says “the numbers being put forward would put us in a fairly.
In the meantime, Commander Innis says, plans are in place to improve the skills that exist within the Coast Guard, particularly as it relates to the upgrading of communications equipment. “Communication is key in this business that we are in.to be able to be communicate with any of our vessels at any time around our coastline is our aim,” he notes.
The Commander is also optimistic that another out-station will be established in the near future in Ocho Rios. “One of the key reasons for that is the level of activity in Ocho Rios as a cruise ship pier and its proximity to other areas that in the past have had high levels of drug activity…so even though it is near to Discovery Bay [out-station] at the moment, I think a presence in Ocho Rios would also help,” he says.

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