There’s a new top official in charge of Coast Guard operations in Alaska.
Rear Admiral Michael F. McAllister passed command to Rear Admiral Matthew T. Bell, Jr., in a changing of command ceremony Wednesday afternoon at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall.
McAllister served as commander of the 17th District, which includes all of Alaska, from June 2016 until Tuesday. Bell, who most recently served a two-year stint at the USCG Personnel Service Center in Washington, D.C., assumes his new duties immediately.
Bell will work from Juneau, where he’s relocating with his wife Nancy Bell and three dogs. Previously the skipper of two Alaska ships out of Kodiak, the new commander has USCG experience in the state dating back to 1989. Getting up to speed with all the parts of the USCG’s mission in Alaska will be hard work, he said, as he’s a few years removed from duty in the last frontier.
“I understand parts of the mission, the complexities of working in and around Alaska,” Bell told the Empire. “Although, as a district commander, it’s a completely different capacity that I’m coming into.”
McAllister will relocate with his family to Washington D.C., where he’s been nominated for a position working in acquisition at USCG headquarters, he told the Empire. In his time as district commander, McAllister oversaw 1,200 search and rescue missions which saved the lives of 600 people.
“Those are 600 people who are now in Alaska or in other places who are alive today because Coast Guard men and women are doing their job and doing it well,” McAllister said.
McAllister continued operation Arctic Shield, exercises the USCG has done since 2009 to prepare for increased maritime activity in the Arctic. He was the district commander for the 150th anniversary of Alaska Coast Guard operations in 2017 and welcomed the arrival of one of two new fast response cutters to be stationed in Alaska. Those are part of a group of six ships to be added to District 17’s fleet as part of a $340 million boost to USCG funding in 2018.
Much of McAllister’s staff will remain after the transition, Bell said, and their breadth of knowledge will help him hit the ground running. Even so, District 17 is so large and complex, the new commander said he’s expecting a busy on-boarding process.
“When you look at 44,000 miles of coastline, there’s a lot of territory to cover and a very limited number of people and assets to do that. That’s going to require some knowledge gaining on my part, just to understand the complexities coast-wise but also what the challenges are that we’re facing,” Bell said.
Some of those challenges, Bell said, will be directing the Coast Guard’s presence in the Arctic, integrating new assets and ships, and continuing District 17’s work with Russia, China and Japan to curb illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) commercial fishing. The Coast Guard has worked hard to bolster their relationships with those nations to limit IUU fishing, Bell said, and he plans to continue that project.
Bell’s first patrol in Alaska was to the “donut hole” of international waters in the Pacific, he said, where IUU fishing can more easily escape legal scrutiny.
“That was my introduction to fisheries, this huge product, that is critical. How you manage that, how you work through those fisheries is key to not only Alaska but for the nation,” Bell said.
While the U.S. could prosecute some IUU cases, Bell said it can be important to engage their international partners to prosecute IUU violations in their home countries. Doing so can help set a precedent that IUU fishing won’t be tolerated in any country.
“We’re already seeing that those international partners are coming to the table and are willing to take those cases from us and then prosecute them when they get back home,” Bell said. “That relieves the captain of his crew, a captain of his ship, a captain of his product. That sends a message to everybody else that wants to do wrongdoing.”
Bell described himself as a “shipboard guy,” or a hands-on manager. He hopes to get out in the communities District 17 serves and make a personal connection with the crew and state.
“You can’t do all your business from the bridge. You have to get out on the decks and get down in the engine room. I hope to do that here in Alaska,” Bell said.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.