Plans for virtual buoys to replace some markers outside harbors raised concerns – Orange County Register

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Sea lions basking in the sun on red-and-white buoys are often the first sight of wildlife as boaters set out to the open ocean from harbors dotting California’s coastline.

The buoys, however, are not just a tourist attraction for glimpsing the big marine mammals, but have also been a navigational tool and iconic landmarks for vessels entering and exiting the waterway.

Now, the U.S. Coast Guard is looking at removing some of the buoys, replacing them with “virtual” navigational aids used with GPS, a system that has some boaters concerned about the proposed change. And in Newport Beach and Santa Cruz, plans appear scrapped after community outcry in recent weeks.

“I feel like a lot of people have strong opinions, overwhelmingly to keep the buoys,” said Ryan Lawler, owner of Newport Coastal Adventure, who uses the one outside of the Newport Harbor for his ocean tours, but also as a longtime fisherman for navigation. “If something is there your whole life you get used to it, and the idea of it going away – that sucks.”

The Coast Guard proposal would replace the buoys with a virtual dot on an online chart. The Coast Guard regularly “assesses waterway risk and ways to leverage emerging technology to efficiently meet navigational safety needs,” officials said in a release about the proposal.

In Newport Beach, social media posts about the proposed changes quickly spread and the Coast Guard appears to have altered course and took the buoy off of the removal list, which has been published the last several weeks in a weekly notice that goes out to mariners. A letter from the Coast Guard that Lawler shared with the Register confirmed that due to public feedback, “the buoy will remain in place.”

 

In Santa Cruz groups formed to fight the plans to remove their “Mile Buoy” and several news articles have been written about the opposition to the plan.

“It serves thousands of fishermen, sailing students, recreational sail and power boaters, kayakers and paddleboarders,” reads a letter to the editor in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Mile Buoy serves as a reference point for water rescues being directed from land. Even if you are not a boater, the buoy may serve you. This visual marker with its gentle fog horn and blinking light welcomes vessels approaching Santa Cruz from offshore.”

After hearing from the community, the Coast Guard made the decision to also leave the Santa Cruz buoy in place, according to a March 29 news release from the Coast Guard.

“This decision underscores our commitment to prioritizing safety while ensuring that the voices of the community are heard and considered,” said Capt. Steven Ramassini, chief of Coast Guard Office of Navigation Systems, in the release. “The invaluable feedback provided by the community has greatly contributed to our comprehensive understanding of the impacts associated with our proposed action.”

After an eight-week public comment period, Coast Guard officials said the opinions of users of the navigation system and community will be reviewed along with other analysis data for a decision on how best to proceed with the remaining proposed project.

In Newport Beach, indications that the buoy will remain in place were welcome news for Lawler and other boaters.

“From the time I heard that it was on the chopping block to the time I heard they had reversed the project, it was like a full priority for me,” Lawler said. “We couldn’t let this happen … we would have lost our buoys forever. For us, not only is it an important safety tool, but a major landmark. A defining landmark for Newport Harbor.”

On foggy days, the sound of the buoy helps guide boats to the entrance and some smaller boats, like kayaks or small aluminum fishing boats, may not have the advanced technology to find “virtual” buoys, he said.

Lawler also argued trying to find a buoy marker on a screen takes the boat driver’s eyes off the water.

Naturalist Daryth Morrissey, president of the American Cetacean Society, Orange County chapter, said her No. 1 worry was for the sea lions if the Newport Harbor buoy were to disappear.

“There’s so very few places for them to haul out,” she said.  “That is one of their go-to spots. For whale watching or marine mammal cruises, it’s almost a given there will be sea lions on the buoy.”

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