The U.S. Coast Guard station in Oxford is one of five being considered for closure and consolidation with other sites.
The potential closure was listed earlier this year in a Federal Register notice, where comments may be submitted online until midnight Tuesday, April 14.
The proposal has drawn opposition from Oxford officials and business owners and area boaters.
The Commissioners of Oxford, in a comment submitted by Town Administrator Cheryl Lewis, wrote “the closing of Station Oxford would be detrimental to the safety of Oxford residents and visitors. Station Oxford plays a pivotal role in the safety of boaters along the waterways from northern Tilghman Island to the Little Choptank River on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, and also over to Chesapeake Beach and south to Calvert Cliffs on the western side.
“Many jurisdictions within this area do not have fire or police departments with boats capable of responding to an emergency on the water, leaving Station Oxford and the Department of Natural Resources, which is oftentimes otherwise occupied with enforcement activities. The jurisdictions with fire departments that do have boats capable of responding to emergencies lack the manpower to operate the boats 24 hours a day and also lack the qualified personnel to make water rescues.
“Station Oxford provides timely response to any emergency on the water. If Station Oxford is closed, the next closest station is Station Annapolis. This is a major concern. Not only is Station Annapolis 32 nautical miles from Oxford, it also requires the travel across the entire Chesapeake Bay, which can be treacherous at times and require slower boat speeds, increasing the response time.
“Even more alarming is the distance from Station Annapolis to other local jurisdictions that Station Oxford covers, including Tilghman Island, Cambridge, Solomons Island, Poplar Island, and Dorchester County. Some of these locations are close to two hours away from Station Annapolis in response time.
“A nearly two-hour response time is concerning when you consider that hypothermia can set in within 45 minutes. While boating during the winter on cold water does not occur everywhere, the Eastern Shore is known for waterfowl hunting during the winter months. Hunters routinely take out large groups on guided boat hunts during the winter. If a guided tour experienced an emergency on the water, the response time would be crucial to the group’s survival. Relying on a boat from Annapolis, in poor winter weather, could easily result in tragedy.
“During peak boating season, 518 commercial boat slips in Oxford, and 35 boat slips that Town owns, are rented. Oxford is a waterman’s town with numerous water dependent marine and recreational boating businesses, including harbor or maritime facilities, marinas, boatyards, waterman operations, fishing charters, yacht charters, paddle boarding, tour boat operators, and aquaculture operations. Station Oxford is also essential in ensuring the safety of commercial crabbers and fishers, through educating them and enforcing the laws and regulations that protect them.
“In addition to the marine and recreational businesses, the Tred Avon Yacht Club, located in Oxford, sponsors regattas throughout the year that bring visitors to the area. These events include occasional regional events such as the annual US Sailing Junior Olympics Sailing Festival and the club’s largest annual regatta, the Oxford Regatta, that includes racing for PHRF, Log Canoes, Stars, Comets, Snipes, Penguins, Optis, Lasers and Club 420’s. In addition to the numerous boats that participate in these events, they also draw large crowds of spectator boats to the Tred Avon River. During these events, and events in neighboring jurisdictions, such as the Ironman events in Cambridge, Station Oxford monitors boat traffic, educates spectators, and provides emergency response.
“Although emergency response is the largest benefit Station Oxford brings to the community, it contributes much more. Station Oxford plays a significant role in educating the public on boater safety. We strongly feel that without the education aspect that Station Oxford offers, the risk to our marine community will greatly increase. The crew at Station Oxford focuses on maritime safety and protecting the local communities. The crew spends a lot of time during prime boating season educating boaters by boarding their boat to accomplish that mission.
“As an example, over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, Station Oxford conducted 44 recreational boater safety boardings to promote the message of boating safety. The Coast Guard is the only agency that provides the necessary boater education. The Department of Natural Resources does not have the time to board boats for the sole purpose of providing boater safety education. We believe that the education Station Oxford provides directly correlates to the limited number of emergencies on the water. Without the education, the number of accidents and emergencies on the water will likely increase and there will not be a local Coast Guard to respond.
“Ultimately, the closure of Station Oxford will cause an increase of emergencies and decreased response time, which is detrimental to the public health and safety.
“Aside from the safety Station Oxford provides on the water, it also provides security to the area where it is located. Station Oxford shares a campus with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) at the end of South Morris Street called the “Cooperative Oxford Laboratory.” Unlike NOAA and DNR, Station Oxford is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During major weather events and similar emergencies, Station Oxford monitors the NOAA lab and DNR site and provides updates to the employees that work at both locations so that they may respond to the location if an emergency arises.
“During the 35-day government shutdown that started in December 2018, the crew at Station Oxford continued to operate their Station and kept a watch over the NOAA lab and DNR, which were both vacant during the shutdown. The loss of 24-hour security to NOAA or DNR would be detrimental.
“In addition to the safety aspects that Station Oxford provides, the 17 crew members at Station Oxford have become a part of the community. During the 35-day government shutdown, members of the local community banded together to provide the Station Oxford crew with food, gas cards, diapers, baby essentials, and funds to help them stay afloat financially. The crew has become a part of the community and the community members rely on the support they provide.
“The Town appreciates your consideration of this opposition to the consolidation of Station Oxford. The Town hopes that the very serious issue of boater safety will cause you to reconsider the consolidation of Station Oxford. We feel that a closure of Station Oxford would be extremely detrimental to the health and safety of the marine community on the Eastern Shore and strongly believe the closure of Station Oxford will have a negative impact to many jurisdictions but particularly to Oxford.”
Captain Tom Bixler, owner and operator of the Oxford Bellevue Ferry, the nation’s oldest privately operated ferry, had similar concerns. He wrote:
“The news of the Oxford Station being on the list for closure would be a terrible mistake and a hazard to the mid bay safety to the many recreational and commercial mariners who ply the waters daily. The current central location in this heavily utilized section of the bay lends great support to the overall safety of our area.
“While there are other assets available thru the Maryland DNR and local volunteer fire departments, they are not manned full time and of course it is well noted the volunteer departments are suffering from severe manpower shortages.
“All the well-known short comings contribute to the delayed response times, which may have catastrophic consequences. The distance to the Annapolis Boat Station is over 25 miles and the response times due to weather and crew availability can quickly become extended.”
Bixler has been a USCG 100 Ton Master for 48 years.
Sewell L. “Toby” Frey, a retired U.S. Air Force major who has been on active boater on the Choptank River for more than 65 years, said closing the Oxford station is not a viable option due to its location and the distance from other Coast Guard stations.
Frey noted the Choptank River is the largest river solely in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay and Cambridge is Maryland’s second deep water port. The Choptank also is one of the major areas for oyster harvesting in the winter months, when emergencies require short response times.
The response times from the two closest Coast Guard stations to the Choptank River could range from 1.5 to 4 hours from Solomons and from 1 to 3 hours from Annapolis, depending on wind and weather conditions, Frey estimated.
Captain Brett M. Sause, an active yachtsman and a USCG Master Licensed Captain on the Chesapeake Bay, has been boating the Chesapeake for over 46 years.
“This news is both shocking and what I believe to be a hazard to the marine community of the Chesapeake Bay. The town of Oxford, first and foremost, love the Oxford USCG Station. Next, the Tred Avon River, as well as its immediate surrounding tributaries, are some of the most highly traveled and worked waters on the Bay and in North America.
“The need for emergency resources on the Bay is critical. The Maryland Dept of Natural Resources Police has limited crews and duty stations. There is often no crew on duty in the area you need them when an emergency may arise, due to the vast size of the Bay. This, of course, slows the response time to any emergency.
“So then the public must rely on the Volunteer Fire companies and the USCG. If we take away the Oxford Station, this makes a significant impact on the mariners of our Bay, which will include imports and exports on the Bay, the shipping industry, and also Maryland Watermen. An estimated 3,000 men and women brave the elements daily to catch their respective limits and sell to the markets. …
“The next closest station to Oxford would be Annapolis. The response time would be tremendous. A decision to remove the Oxford Station in great tragedy.”
“This news is deeply shocking,” Jan Greer, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain and a member of the Tred Avon Yacht Club, wrote. “Proposing the USCG Station Annapolis as an alternative for mariners in distress on the Eastern Bay, of which there are many thousands every day during the boating season, and virtually year-round for our watermen, is tantamount to having no Coast Guard assistance within reach at all in anything resembling adequate timeliness.
“As a member of Tred Avon Yacht Club, I hope to speak for the entirety of our membership when I mention the many hundreds of yachtsmen who are routinely involved in the regattas we host annually. I mention, as one example, the Star World Championship Regatta hosted by our club in October 2018, when we drew 72 boats and crews from all over the United States, many teams from South America, and more than quite a few from Europe.
“The conditions during several days of this championship regatta were less than favorable (read, “pretty nasty”), and the assistance in maintaining an orderly spectator presence, not to mention the availability of safety rescue from boats that capsized notwithstanding the efforts of their world-class sailors, by USCG Oxford Station personnel were to say the least invaluable. We are dependent upon these fine service members for our safety. I and my fellow townspeople sincerely hope you will appreciate the number of Eastern Shore citizens, far, far beyond th0se of us who live here in Oxford, who agree with this sentiment, and will seriously reconsider the closure of this valuable, lifesaving resource.”
In the notice, the Coast Guard wrote:
Many stations were established at a time when boats lacked engines and were powered by oars and paddles. With modern boat operating speeds and improved direction finding technology, many calls for Coast Guard assistance can be responded to by multiple units significantly faster than when these boat stations were first established.
The combination of significantly improved response times, along with an overall reduction in rescue calls due to boating safety improvements throughout the nation, has resulted in a number of boat stations becoming redundant.
This consolidation will result in a more robust response system by increasing staffing levels and capacity at select nearby boat stations. Such a consolidation creates synergy and more opportunities for boat operators to properly train instead of missing training opportunities while standing ready to respond to calls that do not come.
In October of 2017, the Government Accountability Office issued report GAO-18-9, titled “Actions Needed to Close Stations Identified as Overlapping and Unnecessarily Duplicative.” This GAO report recommended the consolidation of eighteen boat stations.
Due to environmental and operational factors, the Coast Guard is not considering all eighteen boat stations identified in the GAO report for consolidation. Instead, we anticipate consolidating five stations, with implementation notionally scheduled for fiscal year 2021.
These stations have been identified because there are other units nearby capable of responding to cases in these areas, and because these five stations respond to a low number of cases.
We do not anticipate any adverse effect on Coast Guard response capability. We expect an improvement to the proficiency of boat operators as well as a less complicated response system.
Station Oxford and Stations-Small Fishers Island, Shark River, Roosevelt Inlet, and Salem have been identified for consolidation with neighboring stations.