When the fishing vessel Alaska Juris began taking on water July 26 in the Bering Sea, the closest help was too far away for the 46 crew members, whose lives hung in the balance. But thanks to NOAA satellites, and an alert NOAA Fisheries manager in Alaska, emergency responders were soon on the way.
It was the largest single rescue event in, or around, the United States credited to NOAA’s role in the international Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system.
As Alaska Juris crew members quickly put on survival suits and got into three life rafts, the same NOAA satellites that track weather detected distress signals from two emergency beacons activated from the vessel. The satellites relayed the initial distress signals to NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland, which immediately notified the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard launched a C-130 aircraft from Kodiak, Alaska, and used the Amver system (a voluntary ship tracking/reporting system managed by the Coast Guard) to alert several nearby commercial ships in the area of the distress.
Meanwhile, Josh Keaton, a resource management specialist with NOAA Fisheries in Juneau, Alaska, monitored the location of the sinking ship using the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), a satellite system that monitors fishing vessels at sea. Keaton used VMS data aided by GPS and satellite technology to estimate the drift trajectory of the Alaska Juris.
He provided that information to a company representative of two nearby “Good Samaritan” fishing vessels, the Ocean Peace and Seafisher. Josh’s drift trajectory was accurate to within 1,000 feet, allowing the two ships to locate the sinking vessel.
“The Alaska Juris continued to drift after initial reports that it was taking on water,” said Todd Loomis of Ocean Peace, Inc. “Josh stayed after hours and continued to provide us with updated positions, drift speed, and likely intercept location, which I relayed to our vessels. Josh aided our response. He kept us in the loop.”
The German-flagged container ship Vienna Express and Norwegian-flagged bulk carrier Spar Canis also diverted to assist the distressed fishing boat. They rescued 18 crew members. The Ocean Peace picked up the remaining 28 survivors from the two life rafts that were tethered to the Alaska Juris, as a Coast Guard C-130 plane circled overhead. The merchant vessels transferred survivors to fishing vessels Ocean Peace and Seafisher for transport to Adak, Alaska. All Alaska Juris crew members survived and no one was reported injured.
NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites can detect distress signals from emergency beacons carried by downed pilots, shipwrecked boaters, and stranded hikers. Information captured from these satellites, including location, are relayed to first responders, who assist with search and rescue efforts.
Since SARSAT began in 1982, the program has helped in the rescue of nearly 40,000 people worldwide, including nearly 8,000 within the United States and its surrounding waters.
“This is a classic example of how NOAA satellites can help save lives, and have a role that extends beyond weather forecasting,” said Chris O’Conners, NOAA SARSAT program manager.
By law, owners of emergency beacons are required to register the beacons with NOAA. This registration information often helps provide better and faster assistance to people in distress. It may also provide information about the location of the emergency, how many people need assistance, what type of help may be needed, and other ways to contact the owner. In July, NOAA tallied the 500,000th registered beacon in the SARSAT program.
For more information about NOAA SARSAT, please visit: www.sarsat.noaa.gov