A Christmas wish: more jobs for U.S. merchant mariners

I was talking recently with Scott, an old friend who lives in Canada, about a visit to our house he and his family are planning to make during the holidays.

He has a daughter in the second grade, so when discussing possible activities during their stay I told him, “We can take Ayla to see Santa down at a local historic farm. He will arrive by horse-drawn sleigh, so tell her to start thinking about her Christmas wish list.”

Scott replied, “No worries there. She started that the day after last Christmas!”

We both laughed, and then he asked, “So, how about you? What is on Capt. Kelly’s Christmas list this year?”

At the time I mentioned a new set of Carhartt coveralls and a jacket. Later that evening, as my mind drifted back to our conversation, I thought about how as you get older your Christmas wishes actually shift away from yourself to others. So I added another item to my wish list — more jobs for U.S. merchant mariners. As this “International Year of the Seafarer” comes to an end, our government has the opportunity to make that wish come true.

In recent years, a number of government officials have praised short-sea shipping as a way to increase jobs, most recently U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda when he addressed Congress in April. Short-sea shipping, known as “America’s Marine Highway” in the United States, is defined as a water route that does not cross an ocean.

Typically short-sea vessels carry cargo that could reach its destination by truck. The idea is that by taking cargo and transporting it over water instead of on the highways, more jobs for mariners would be created, with the environmental benefits of fewer long-haul trucks on the roads. Though I believe that short-sea shipping has the potential to increase jobs for U.S. mariners, I have always had concerns about those who see it as a way to allow foreign-flag ships and crews to flood our domestic market — something that has already occurred in other countries.

In Australia, according to a government study, opening up coastal shipping to foreign operators hurt both domestic shipping companies and mariners — resulting in a 40 percent reduction in the number of Australian-flag vessels in that market in only a 10-year period. The Institute for Global Maritime Studies points out that in Europe, often touted as an example of how well short-sea shipping works, it actually resulted in the loss of jobs for European seafarers. The European Community Shipowners’ Associations has noted that from 1985 to 1995, the number of European Union mariners working on their countries’ vessels declined by 37 percent. This came at a time when short-sea shipping was on the rise in Europe. My wish is that our government ensures that what happened in Australia and Europe does not occur here.

Whatever means are chosen to facilitate the development of short-sea shipping along “America’s Marine Highway,” the Jones Act should remain intact — with no exemptions allowed. Cargo moving between U.S. ports should be carried on American-flag vessels and provide jobs only for U.S. merchant mariners.

In hearings before Congress this summer, it was revealed that at least 400 jobs on drilling support vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, such as dive boats or underwater construction ships, were being taken by foreign mariners working on vessels registered outside the United States. This has been allowed because of glaring loopholes in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). (PM #128).

These foreign crewmembers do not have to undergo a security background check to obtain a TWIC card, don’t pay U.S. income taxes and take jobs away from U.S. citizens. It is wrong to have American merchant mariners unemployed on the beach while foreign crews are working on vessels supporting the drilling of oil in our waters. Those jobs should go to U.S. mariners. This type of game playing needs to end. Waivers of OCSLA U.S.-flag registry and crewing requirements should be permanently eliminated.

It was also reported during the congressional hearings in June that over 50 percent of the mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs) working in the U.S.-controlled deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico were foreign flagged. Recognizing the need to change this, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., sponsored H.R. 5629, the Oil Spill Accountability and Environmental Protection Act of 2010 — which has already passed committee and is scheduled for a vote in the House. Among other things, this bill would require that only U.S.-flag rigs be allowed to drill for oil in our waters. It would also eliminate the shoddy practice of allowing an unlicensed person to be in charge of a MODU working in our seas, something the Marshall Islands Registry permitted and which was identified as a contributing factor in the disastrous Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Our U.S.-flag MODUs are subject to more stringent operating requirements, as well as U.S. Coast Guard inspections. Most importantly, only U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States can be employed on these vessels.

Unfortunately, as 2010 draws to a close, many seafarers and their families are hurting economically. Our government needs to plug the loopholes that cost U.S. mariner jobs and needs to put the interests of its citizens first. Enacting and enforcing legislation to help American merchant mariners will enhance security and set higher operating standards, create more jobs and remind the world that this is still a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and smooth sailin’.

By Professional Mariner Staff