Coast Guard seeks to improve shore access for mariners at terminals

Since 9/11, seafarers often have found it difficult to leave vessels moored in the United States for shore leave. The Coast Guard wants port facilities to make that process easier. 

In December, the Coast Guard published a proposed rule that would require terminals to give seafarers and others timely access between vessels and a site’s gates. The affected seafarers are both American citizens and foreigners.

Under the rule, facilities would be required to institute a system within a year, incorporating specific ways to provide timely access at no cost to seafarers and other individuals seeking egress and ingress. The rule would apply to owners and operators of facilities regulated by the Marine Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA). Facility owners include businesses, non-profits and government agencies. 

Seafarers can be on the water for days, weeks or months at a time. Transiting through a regulated facility is the only way these sailors can set foot on U.S. shores for services, businesses and contact with family, friends and others who don’t hold Transportation Worker Identification Credentials. 

Currently, seafarers can be denied shore leave or timely access to land in the U.S. Seafarer welfare agents and labor officials can be refused access to moored vessels, said the Rev. Sinclair Oubre, diocesan director of the Apostleship of the Sea in Beaumont, Texas. Oubre feels the proposed rule is needed, and he attended a Jan. 23 public meeting about it held by the Coast Guard in Washington. 

Facilities that have shore leave and access procedures in place may not allow timely egress or ingress in practice because of pre-notification needs, complicated paperwork, delays in gate processing and insurance requirements, Oubre said. A seafarer can lose so much time trying to exit a site’s gate that he only has a few precious hours of leave remaining. Oubre said seafarers seeking shore access have been particularly stymied at 12 U.S. facilities that he called the “Dirty Dozen.” He refrained from naming them.

The Coast Guard in January sought comments on whether its proposed rule provided flexibility for a diverse regulated population so that access is timely and reasonable; whether a year was enough time for implementation; and whether the list of individuals allowed access to vessels was inclusive. Comment was sought on cost estimates for needed amendments to facility security plans.

Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, warned that the proposed regulations could be thwarted by shipowners who require seafarers to reimburse them for escorting and transporting fees charged by terminals. New mechanisms are needed to deter ships from collecting from seafarers. He said terminals could be prohibited from itemizing charges to ships for escorting seafarers. If terminals were to include the costs of their transit and escort services in their dockage fees, ships would be charged whether or not they use these transit services, discouraging them from making shore leave difficult, he said. 

Stevenson said timely access must include the need for seafarers’ welfare groups to give vital services to those aboard ships. Overall, however, he believes the Coast Guard did a good job in drafting its proposed regulations. “If they’re promulgated and properly implemented, they’ll go a long way to improve seafarers’ access to shore,” he said. Stevenson estimated that well over 1 million seafarers who visit MTSA-regulated cargo facilities annually would benefit from the rule.

As for costs, the Coast Guard estimated in its rule proposal: “For facilities that have to modify operations and document the new system of access in their Facility Security Plan, 68 percent would have a revenue impact of 1 percent or less; 26 percent would have impacts of greater than 1 percent to 10 percent; and 6 percent would have a revenue impact of greater than 10 percent.”

The proposed rule would implement Section 811 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010. 

By Professional Mariner Staff