The U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) has received numerous reports of marine infractions after launching an app for anonymous tips in May.
“We got one on an illegal charter performing livery for hire, and they even sent photos,” said Michael Berkow, director of CGIS. The images sent via the CGIS Tips app showed that the boat had some of its flotation foam removed, and its horsepower exceeded its rating.
“If you spend the money to be legally licensed as a captain, it must make you crazy to see somebody just put their boat up for hire,” he said.
In another tip, Berkow said the whistleblower left the following message: “I know this guy’s merchant mariner credential has been removed and I still see him on a commercial vessel.” Still another reported a drunken mariner at the helm of a commercial vessel.
Prior to the official launch of the app, Berkow said there were a couple of limited rollouts while CGIS waited for the final blessing from the Department of Homeland Security and other government authorities. CGIS Tips can be downloaded from the App Store for iOS or from Google Play. In addition to sending a tip via smartphone, users can do so online at www.uscg.mil/Units/Coast-Guard-Investigative-Service/.
One of the primary law enforcement benefits of the app is that although tips are made confidentially, whoever is providing the information can allow CGIS agents to request more details. The service is considered a military criminal investigating organization that follows up on high-profile incidents like the Conception dive boat fire in California, the sinking of Stretch Duck 7 in Missouri, and crimes like smuggling drugs.
For the commercial mariner, the service also follows up on fraudulent charters, expired or non-existent mariner credentials, and illegal Transportation Worker Identification Credentials (TWICs).
“It gives us the opportunity to identify these illegal charter operations that risk the public and undercut legitimate businesses,” Berkow said.
Once a tip is provided, it reaches more than 500 law enforcement accounts nationwide, as well as military and federal agencies.
Berkow hopes the app will result in more tips on oily water separator cases. Commercial vessels are required to run bilge water through a cleaning system to remove oil and other pollutants before pumping it overboard. Many don’t, however, and the water is discharged through what is infamously known as a “magic pipe.” In 2016, Princess Cruise Lines was hit with fines totaling $40 million for violating the law.
“Now with the app, the crewmember has a direct way to get in touch with us and to attach video and photographs of the illegal activity,” Berkow said.
Regardless of the law being broken, Berkow hopes that private citizens as well as commercial representatives will use the app to report suspicious marine activity.
“We’re very hopeful that this is going to provide an easy path for citizens who are aware of illegal acts in the maritime community to report, and then we get at it,” he said.