At the helm is Capt. Sean Mahoney, Sector San Diego commander and captain of the port. Two years into his three-year term, Mahoney sat down with the San Diego Community Newspaper Group to discuss USCG operations and the critical function his organization serves in the beach community and throughout the region.
The three focuses of Coast Guard Sector San Diego, according to Mahoney, are maritime safety, which includes its trademark search-and-rescue missions and prevention of tragedies through inspecting vessels; maritime security operations, including securing the port, escorting vessels, abating drug smuggling and human trafficking; and maritime stewardship, or the preservation of the environment through such activities as responding to oil spills and species protection from unauthorized fishing operations.
Mahoney said the southwest border and proximity to Mexico is the key factor influencing activities that take place at Sector San Diego. Drug seizures and human trafficking are on the rise as smugglers get more brazen and desperate to operate with tightening enforcement along land borders.
According to Mahoney, 25,000 lbs. of marijuana were intercepted in 2011 by the USCG in Southern California. By 2012, this amount had grown to 118,000 lbs., and so far this year, 80,000 lbs. have been seized. Smugglers, using both panga boats — open-hulled Mexican fishing boats — and recreational boats trying to blend in with typical boating traffic, are making perilous voyages at night and landing farther north up the coastline trying to evade capture. In response, air support from Coast Guard C130 aircraft and helicopters and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine resources becomes ever more vital to enforcement, said Mahoney. San Diego’s closest neighboring Coast Guard sector is Los Angeles/Long Beach.
The Coast Guard is unique in terms of military branches in that it is the only operation that falls under the Department of Homeland Security. Therefore, it has law enforcement authority. Coast Guard teams can board vessels, conduct investigations and regulate and patrol special events that take place on the water. Special Coast Guard units, for example, deploy with Navy ships in Central America because they have the authority to board vessels where their naval counterparts do not.
This follows a general trend of the USCG’s shift of focus to law enforcement.
“There’s more of a maritime homeland security focus than we had prior to the attacks of 9/11,” said Mahoney. “The Coast Guard [used to be] more focused on search and rescue, but after [9/11], we brought maritime security to the forefront.”
As far as the men and women who serve at Sector San Diego (about 20 percent of local personnel are female), Mahoney said it’s a combination of skill and determination that makes them so successful at what they do.
“They have to be professional and they have to have a can-do attitude,” said Mahoney. “That’s the key right there. And they have to show respect for everybody, peers or subordinates or seniors alike. They have to treat everyone with respect.”
A coveted bid typically chosen by USCG members with seniority, Sector San Diego attracts some of the organization’s top talent. Save for a few young single members who live in barracks on the base, a 23-acre bay front location across from Lindbergh Field, most personnel reside in San Diego communities with their families, including Mahoney, who lives in Point Loma with his wife and one of their two daughters who attends PLNU. While figures of the economic impact Sector San Diego makes to the region are unavailable, it is likely sizable due to sheer volume of Coast Guard families residing throughout the county, Mahoney said.
When asked about the effects of sequestration, Mahoney said that while Sector San Diego initially saw a drop in patrol hours for aircraft, small boats and cutters, the sequestration guidelines allow operational commanders discretion to determine where those cuts can be made. Their district commander has restored most of the patrol to levels almost the same as prior to the sequestration, though it has impacted travel and other administrative tasks.
“We’re able to manage it at this point,” he said.
One of Mahoney’s goals during his tenure as commander is to ensure the highest level of proficiency is kept among his crew. This can be challenging, given job descriptions may include duties like shooting out engines of fleeing speedboats, conducting hoists over rocking ships at night while wearing night-vision goggles and conducting marine inspections where the inspector needs to know every single detail about the complex systems on commercial vessels and safety-drill procedures.
“The amount of expertise is enormous, and just maintaining that expertise by making sure we are as proficient as we possibly can be is one area,” said Mahoney.
His second goal is to continue to build and strengthen partnerships with other organizations. USCG operations require extensive collaboration with myriad agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol to local, county and federal agencies, and their neighbor with whom they share the bay — the San Diego Harbor Police.
On Aug. 4, Sector San Diego held its annual Coast Guard Day festivities, celebrating the anniversary of Coast Guard’s establishment in 1790.