New Coast Guard District 17 Commander Brings Arctic Experience

Rear Adm. Tom Ostebo inspects the District 17 crew with Rear Adm. Dan Abel. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)
Rear Adm. Tom Ostebo inspects the District 17 crew with Rear Adm. Dan Abel. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

With the buoy tender Sycamore as a backdrop and Coast Guardsmen and women in their dress blues, Rear Adm. Tom Ostebo turned over Coast Guard District 17 command to Rear Adm. Dan Abel on Thursday.

Ostebo is known for his work in the Arctic, and Abel says he’s ready to continue what his predecessor started.

Pacific Area commander, Vice Adm. Charles Ray, praised Ostebo’s leadership over the past three years.

“Tom Ostebo has flown over, sailed across, walked the beaches more than any Coast Guardsman, I believe, in the history of this district,” Ray said.

During Ostebo’s tenure, the Coast Guard launched seasonal operations in the Arctic, where shipping traffic is on the rise. When a winter storm prevented a fuel delivery to Nome in 2012, he sent the icebreaker Healy to clear a path for a Russian tanker. He also supervised the Coast Guard’s response to the grounding of the Shell drill rig Kulluk near Kodiak in early 2013.

For these and other successes, Ostebo gave credit to the men and women under his command.

Every day you protect the nation’s commerce, you protect Alaskans, and you protect America’s greatest maritime resources,” Ostebo said. “And you do it better than anyone else, with efficiency and skill.”

Ostebo received a citation for exceptional meritorious service. He’s been nominated for a promotion to vice admiral and a post as the Coast Guard’s Deputy Commandant for Mission Support in Washington, D.C. The position is subject to Senate confirmation. Ostebo says it will allow him to continue focusing on the Coast Guard’s Arctic mission.

He says there’s still a lot of work to be done in that part of the world.

“It’s more than just exploration. It’s the maritime commerce piece,” Ostebo told reporters after the ceremony. “It’s what’s the Bering Strait is going to look like 10, 20 years from now? Will it look like the Straits of Hormuz or the Straits of Malacca? You know, one of these big international straits.”

This will be Abel’s first tour in Alaska, but he says he’s no stranger to the Arctic. In his previous command in Boston, he supervised the International Ice Patrol. That’s the Coast Guard program established to monitor icebergs in the North Atlantic to avoid another Titanic.

“We also supported Operation Nanook, which was practice mass rescue, environmental cleanup in the Arctic,” Abel said. “And the other thing we did, we supported the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum to 17 nations that band together. Eight of those are the Arctic nations.”

Abel says he plans to travel extensively in Alaska and work with local communities to learn as much as he can about the state’s unique needs.

The far reaches at these high latitudes are going to be the challenge,” he said. “And I’m going to have to learn from the folks that’ve been standing watch a little longer than I.”

Abel is already planning to visit Nome, where Mayor Denise Michels says marine traffic has increased so much that the port, which used to close in October, is now open into November.

“Last year we had over 400 dockings in Nome,” Michels said. “Every year it’s more and more. We have more cruise ships this year.”

Michels hopes Abel can visit in July, when vessel traffic is at its peak.

“Safety is a concern, environmental issues is a concern,” she said. “The marine mammal migration through the Bering Strait, which is the choke point where we’re at, you know, it’s our front yard. So, to have him understand our concerns for subsistence, food security is going to be very important for his leadership for the next couple of years.”

The Coast Guard’s 17th District is based in Juneau. The commander leads 2,500 active duty, reserve, civilian and auxiliary personnel statewide, and manages operations over more than 3.8 million square miles and more than 44,000 miles of coastline.