Coast Guard takes steps to ensure mariner access to marine terminals

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking its captains of the port to review port facility security plans to ensure that they provide adequate shore access for seafarers.

The advisory dated Oct. 7, 2009, asks the captains of the port to identify those facilities that “continue to deny access to seafarers, charge exorbitant fees to provide access, greatly limit hours of access, or institute other overly restrictive policies that discourage or refuse access.”

Facility security plans must be reviewed by the Coast Guard every five years. The Coast Guard wants the captains of the port to use those reviews to ensure that seafarer-access issues are addressed.

Shore access for mariners became more restrictive following passage of the Maritime Transportation Safety Act (MTSA) in 2002. The act created the TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) program. To gain access to port facilities, workers now need to have a TWIC card or be escorted by someone with a card who has been vetted by the facility. Previously, mariners from outside the United States needed a valid D-1 visa.

In the advisory to port captains, the Coast Guard cited a Seamen’s Church Institute survey from May 2009 that found access problems in 12 of 20 ports.

The institute, which is based in New York, has been conducting shore leave surveys since 2002 to determine the extent of the problem. The surveys also highlighted inconsistent policies among the ports.

“They all have different policies,” said Douglas Stevenson, director of the institute’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights. “There has been a lot of misreporting in the mainstream media, for example, saying that Muslims were being denied shore leave, but it is untrue.”

However, it is true, he said, that some private terminals deny access or charge exorbitant fees. He said that sometimes fees can run as high as $1,200 to escort mariners from the ship to the gate. Stevenson noted that language in the new Coast Guard authorization bill aims to prohibit such fees.

Stevenson is pleased that the Coast Guard wants the captains of the port to review access policies by marine terminals. “They are being tougher on facilities that do not comply,” he said

Stevenson said he recognizes the need for port security and advocates the creation of an international biometric ID card and has asked the Office of Management and Budget to study it. All ships entering the United States must give 96 hours’ notice so that crewmembers’ identities can be verified. “It would be better to have a biometric ID that can be checked (rather) than a five-year-old D-1 visa,” he said.

Burt Russell, vice president of operations for Sprague Energy Corp. in Portsmouth, N.H., said that his company owns 16 terminals and is sensitive to the access issue, but feels that the cost of escort service should be borne by the vessel owners.

“The problem with us providing free escorts is that we operate busy terminals and cannot supply the staff necessary. We would need four people, 250 days a year times 16 terminals,” said Russell.

John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff