LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Coast Guard unveiled a new port security program Monday that trains reservists to board cruise ships and commercial vessels on the high seas in search of terrorists.
The program is part of an extensive effort by the Coast Guard to stretch its resources and protect the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which combined are the nation’s largest, handling $170 billion of commerce each year.
The so-called “sea marshal” security teams are also in action in San Diego and San Francisco as pilot programs for possible use in other parts of the nation.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Coast Guard has taken the lead among a number of agencies and started boarding all cruise ships several miles off the coast of California.
Armed officers make sure the crew is in control of the ship and check passenger lists for suspected terrorists.
“Cruise ships are a target,” said Lt. Carlos Mercado of the Coast Guard’s marine safety office in Los Angeles. “We try to think like terrorists. If you hit, you want the most bang for your buck, and inside the harbor is where you’d get it.”
The marshals also conduct random checks on what the Coast Guard considers “high interest vessels,” those flying flags from nations such as Libya, Iran and China.
More than 5,500 commercial vessels and several hundred cruise ships a year dock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, making the new security measures labor intensive.
The Coast Guard has engaged the help of more than half a dozen other agencies ranging from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Fish and Game.
On Monday, some of the 80 Coast Guard reservists called up since Sept. 11 completed their final training to become sea marshals, practicing their boarding techniques on an old Navy vessel.
In addition to trying to head off disaster before it reaches port, the Coast Guard is working with divers from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Port Police to inspect the hulls of random ships inside the harbor for bombs.
During Monday’s exercise, divers checked the hulls of two cruise ships — the Serenade and the Ecstasy — in the port of Los Angeles while vessels from the Coast Guard cordoned off the area.
With visibility in the polluted and silt-filled harbor restricted to less than 10 feet, it can take nearly two hours to sweep a hull, said Capt. Ralph Tracy of the Port of Los Angeles Police Department.
“It’s like diving in an ink well,” he said.
One scenario officials are concerned about is a cell of terrorists storing explosives under a peer and then transferring them to a cruise ship once it has docked nearby.
“If this cruise ship blew up right now, we’d have to close down this port for days,” Mercado said. “You’re talking millions, billions of dollars of loses.”
The sea marshals and other new security measures are likely to continue indefinitely.
“We’re looking at the new normal,” said Capt. John Holmes, commanding officer of the Coast Guard marine safety office in Los Angeles.
But the added responsibilities are starting to take their toll. Coast Guard staff members routinely work 14 hours a day, and regular duties are being off-loaded onto other agencies.
Los Angeles Bay Watch lifeguards, for instance, are picking up much of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue efforts.
“Our crews are fatigued,” Mercado said. “We’re trying to do more with less and it’s hard.”