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Marine Advisory Agent Brings Free Ship Tracking to Nome

Marine Advisory agent Gay Sheffield helped Nome, AK gain the Automatic Identification System for increasing maritime traffic

A typical early morning routine in Nome, Alaska, might include checking the weather and looking at ice conditions. But now residents can add another observation, by going online to see the large marine vessels within 12 miles of the Nome harbor.

A collaborative effort between the University of the Aegean in Greece, the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus is providing free real-time information to the public, about ship information and movements near Nome.

Marine Advisory agent Gay Sheffield is responsible for bringing this technology to Nome. “On the internet was a community-based public access AIS receiver website that promised to ‘cover your area.’ So I wrote to them and told them that near Nome and the Bering Strait region, our large vessel traffic is increasing and forecasted to continue to increase. As promised, the University of the Aegean sent us the base station equipment – at no cost.”

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a method of broadcasting shipboard information to others. It is was designed to increase maritime safety for ships by electronically broadcasting the identity, position, and course of a vessel, thus helping other ships prevent collisions and assisting port authorities to better control maritime traffic. Since 2004, the International Maritime Organization, the group that develops and maintains regulations on international shipping, has required all vessels more than 300 gross tons and all merchant ships with passengers, regardless of size, to carry an AIS transponder.

AIS transponders on vessels include a GPS (global positioning system) receiver and a VHF transmitter, which broadcast information to other ships that carry AIS onboard – as well as to base station receivers. The U. of Aegean/Marine have created a voluntary community-based effort that is publically accessible – at no cost to the community.

Vessels that have the AIS systems onboard can be tracked by AIS base stations located onshore and even by some satellites.  The AIS base station antenna in Nome is mounted on the UAF Northwest Campus main building, about 100 yards from the shore.

“Have you tried accessing the Nome AIS station?” asked Sheffield. “The system is based on AIS receivers sent out to volunteers all over the world. We set ours up and plugged it in and blip; we got a spot on the map not only showing us the location of a cruise vessel but details about that particular ship. At, you can see the results of community-based public access AIS receivers – it’s impressive but there is much of Alaska’s coastline that needs public access receivers.”

The online map display includes a symbol for every significant ship within radio range of the AIS transponder. By clicking on a ship symbol, you can see an image of the ship and learn the ship name, flag country, type, course and speed, size, and destination. A link to “Vessel’s Details” offers even more information, such as the ship’s call sign, registration number, and Marine Mobile Service Identity.

Sheffield’s immediate reasons for acquiring the tracking system were to better understand local ship traffic near the Port of Nome as well as to make the Bering Strait and other regions aware of community-based public access AIS capabilities.

Additionally undisturbed subsistence harvest of local marine resources and marine safety are major concerns in Sheffield’s area.  “We are basically self-rescue in the Bering Strait area. So as an example, say a boatload of people is due back and you know they were going 50 miles to the northwest. They could have broken down or be drifting out there. If you see a vessel in that area, you can find out who it is on the AIS website, call them up and ask for their assistance in looking for your missing friends,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield would like to get a more powerful antenna for the Nome AIS station, to gain a line of sight out further than the current 12 mile range. But for now she is enthusiastically spreading the word about the tool. “There is even a phone app.! In the Bering Strait region, community-based public access information on large vessel traffic can give people understanding and control over their own situation regarding large vessels in a region experiencing increasing maritime traffic.”

To see ships broadcasting AIS information that are within 12 miles of Nome today, check out Sheffield’s website at For worldwide ship traffic go to For more information about Nome’s AIS, or if you are interested in setting one up in your Alaska community, contact Gay Sheffield, 907-443-2397,


Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and extension program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program provides outreach and technical assistance to help Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources. Alaska Sea Grant is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and by the University of Alaska Fairbanks with state funds, in partnership with private industry.

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