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For those who don’t have ties to seafaring business, the day-to-day of maritime freighters may not come to mind in discussions about securing our nation’s borders. The topic of border security is often focused on discussions about threats to public transportation, the cross-border flow of illegal drugs or immigration policy; but border security is a vast, complex jurisdiction. Agencies charged with the protection of our borders are often responsible with safeguarding our country’s maritime infrastructure, a surprisingly delicate element of our economy.

Research by Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis (OCIA) determined that our nation’s maritime infrastructure is one of the least resilient aspects of our country’s economically vital systems. One report identified that 54 percent of the nation’s inland maritime transportation structures are at least 50 years old. The report also identified 36 percent of these key transportation routes as at least 70 years old. The age of these structures alone can and does cause outages in the performance of facilitating the maritime flow of goods.

An especially vulnerable point of failure that OCIA outlined in one of its reports is the collection of locks known as the Soo Locks, which is vital in supplying our country with steel. Located in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, the Soo Locks connect Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes. This connection facilitates the flow of taconite, a specific type of iron ore found only in Minnesota and Michigan that steel mills around the Great Lakes are configured to use. A theoretical closure of the Soo Locks—or just its largest lock, the Poe Lock—for a period of six months could cause catastrophic damage to our economy by interrupting the flow of taconite to mills that supply manufacturers, particularly those in the auto industry, with the material needed to maintain production.

The frailty of this infrastructure creates a great challenge to the government agencies charged with enforcing our nation’s maritime laws, who also have to maintain and protect a critical element of our economy and the material supply chain for our national defense.