Stephen White took over the executive directorship of the Marine Exchange of Alaska in September following his retirement from the Coast Guard in July. (Michael S. Lockett/ Juneau Empire)

Stephen White took over the executive directorship of the Marine Exchange of Alaska in September following his retirement from the Coast Guard in July. (Michael S. Lockett/ Juneau Empire)

Smooth sailing as new director helms Marine Exchange of Alaska

The organization will continue to chart its course towards the future as the maritime economy grows.

Stephen White and Ed Page’s paths first crossed decades, riding the ferry to Juneau while they were both still in the Coast Guard; Page a captain, White a lieutenant.

Now White, retired from the Coast Guard in July, has taken over from Page as the executive director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska.

“We share that vision and that love for the Alaska maritime environment,” White said in an interview. “For me, being involved in something that’s still protecting the environment, protecting lives — I really enjoy the more tangible, tactical part of it. I know how bad it is when things don’t work out.”

Stephen White, left, took over the executive directorship of the Marine Exchange of Alaska in September from Ed Page, right. (Michael S. Lockett/ Juneau Empire)

Stephen White, left, took over the executive directorship of the Marine Exchange of Alaska in September from Ed Page, right. (Michael S. Lockett/ Juneau Empire)

A Juneau institution

The MXAK was founded in 2000 by Page, expanding from three people in an office above the Hangar on the Wharf to a 23-man operation in its own, four-year-old, $4.5 million building. Innovating and adapting to new technologies as they come online, the MXAK in Juneau monitors an area with more coastline than the entire Lower 48 and some of the harshest weather on the planet, Page said.

“Alaska’s so dependent on the maritime industry, the Blue Economy, for their well being,” Page said in an interview. “I was always wanting for information. I would go to the local marine exchange in L.A.

, and they had a lot of information, but not all the information.”

While Lower 48 ports have infrastructure and aids to shipping built up over the decades, Page said, none of that exists here in Alaska, as more and more ships take Great Circle routes across the vast Pacific.

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“The amount of tourism that moves through these waters, the amount of explosives that move through these waters, the amount of petroleum that moves through these waters,” White said. “When you see the amount of traffic that comes through our waters, it’s a highway. All this industry that moves across the Pacific moves up through Alaska. It’s a lot shorter to go across the top than across. “

Sometimes storms force those ships to go through the islands of the Aleutians, as in the case of the Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian cargo vessel that grounded and snapped in half near Unalaska after suffering an engineering casualty during a storm in 2004. Alaska is a vast and sparsely populated area, meaning it doesn’t have the infrastructure or people to keep an eye out for vessels like more developed coasts have. MXAK and their data-gathering and disseminating can compensate for that absence, to help monitor and if necessary, safeguard that maritime traffic, Page said.

“The big sea change here is that other marine exchanges here are focused on the port,” Page said. “We’re leading the way on sea traffic management. It’s the Wild West and we’re taming the Wild West, in the Aleutians, in the Arctic.”

Information is key

The information goes to ships, companies, and organizations like the Coast Guard, who can use it to monitor traffic for anomalies, such as a boat sailing close to a dangerous area, or going much slower than everyone else in a region, White said. A custom blend of software helps flag anomalies for the 24-hour watch center, Page said.

“We got a search and rescue call, it was garbled. ‘This is the fishing vessel M-something, we’re going down,’” White said, recalling a search and rescue case from his time as port captain of Sector Juneau. “We didn’t know the name of the vessel, we don’t know where they were. That’s 3,500 square miles to search. We pulled up the MXAK feed and searched for fishing vessels starting with M and found a track that ended on a rock.”

All hands were rescued from the grounded fishing vessel without incident, White said. That data saved USCG aircrews the time it would take to search an area three times the size of Rhode Island. Information is key, Page said- receiving it, processing it, and making it available to those who can make use of it can save lives.

“We’re providing information in a different way and trying to stay ahead of all the changes. Not only are you getting the information, it goes two ways,” Page said. “There’s data going all over the place, but we’re adding value by understanding it, comprehending it, and applying it.”

Stephen White, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, gestures at their real time tracking of thousands of vessels near Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean on Oct. 4, 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Stephen White, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, gestures at their real time tracking of thousands of vessels near Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean on Oct. 4, 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Steady hand on the wheel

As Page retires after 20 years of getting the MXAK up to speed and steaming, he said he looked for a long time for someone to take the helm.

“I’m not the least bit worried about him filling my shoes. He’s basically eclipses my familiarity with the waters and operations up here in Alaska sailing all these different waters” Page said. “His spyglass is a little different tint than mine, and that’s a good thing.”

Page said his Coast Guard career was more oriented toward marine safety and environmental protection, while White spent his time as a career cutter officer. Those different perspectives can help the MXAK to stay versatile and adaptive, Page said.

“I worked hard to convince (White) it was time to leave the Coast Guard and come work here,” Page said. “(White) loves Alaska. His kids love Alaska. He can really apply his skills better than anywhere else.”

White, now prominently displaying a post-military beard, agreed, saying he was excited to help out in an area where he’d spent most of his career, with the agility a non-governmental organization could offer.

“The pinnacle of my Coast Guard career was managing waters here in Southeast Alaska,” White said. “I think what I was scared about losing, the camaraderie, the sense of purpose, I found here. A lot of it’s the same people, the same players, I’m just playing a different position.”

White said his eyes are toward the future, as the MXAK looks towards staying on the bleeding edge, supporting Alaska’s maritime economy and traffic.

“The Marine Exchange 20 years from today will not look like the MX of today. We have to stay on the path of adaptation,” White said. “(The maritime economy) is going to change. How are we changing with it?”

While Page is stepping away from the executive directorship of the organization, he’s remaining in Juneau, and will continue to be involved in the organization he created, albeit from more of a remove, he said.

“This is something Juneau should be proud of,” Page said. This is a maritime community; it depends on the maritime. The fact that there’s this center of excellence here is fitting.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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