Encourage short-sea shipping,
but keep the Jones Act intact


Dave, an old friend of mine and a top-notch officer, sails as chief mate on an articulated tug barge (ATB) running from South Carolina to Texas delivering parazylene. Curt, the son-in-law of a family friend, works as a deck hand on a towboat, pushing barges on the Mississippi all the way up to St. Louis. Chip, the son of our local garden equipment dealer and a Maine Maritime Academy grad, works as a first engineer on a tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, carrying gasoline and diesel between New Orleans and Port Everglades, Fla.

Each of these U.S. merchant mariners works on vessels plying domestic short-sea shipping trade routes. Short-sea shipping refers to the movement of cargo that does not cross an ocean. Typically that means vessels plying coastal and inland routes.

The primary U.S. short-sea shipping routes along America’s Marine Highway, (a term coined by U.S. Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton) are the Great Lakes, the inland rivers, Alaska-U.S. West Coast and between U.S. ports along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts.

There are many potential advantages to increasing short-sea shipping along America’s Marine Highway, as advanced by the U.S. Maritime Administration. Since the amount of cargo that can be carried on a ship or barge is many times what can be pulled by a truck, increasing short-sea shipping could reduce highway congestion, cut diesel exhaust and lessen wear and tear on our bridges and highways. Total up all the companies already operating vessels on U.S. short-sea shipping routes, and you have hundreds of millions of tons of cargo moving over rivers and along coastal waterways instead of over the roads. In fact, just one U.S. company, American Commercial Line, moves around 70 million tons of cargo along short-sea shipping routes every year.

In 2006, I was one of the panelists, and only active merchant mariner, who spoke at the North American Short Sea Shipping Conference held in Vancouver, British Columbia. One speaker after another touted these and other potential benefits of short-sea shipping. Until I spoke, however, each one ignored the major question from my perspective: “How will increasing short-sea shipping on our domestic routes affect the Jones Act?”

Many countries in the world have cabotage laws designed to protect their air and sea trade routes. In the United States, these cabotage laws are the reason British Airways isn’t running a shuttle passenger service between Houston and Dallas, and why Linea Mexicana doesn’t have a round-trip container service between San Francisco and Hawaii. In the United States, the primary maritime cabotage law is the Jones Act. Officially known as the Shipping Act of 1920, it was enacted to prevent the mistreatment of merchant mariners (something which was commonplace in those days) and to protect our country’s vital shipping and shipbuilding interests.

The Jones Act requires cargo bound from one U.S. port to another to be carried on U.S. flag ships built in U.S. shipyards — vessels which abide by the high construction and operating standards enforced in our country. At the conference, I made it clear that I strongly oppose weakening the Jones Act to allow foreign vessels and shipping companies on our domestic short-sea shipping routes.

Without question, there are some in the maritime industry who want to use short-sea shipping as a way to undermine the Jones Act. For example, a recently published feasibility study of short-sea shipping in the Massachusetts ports of Fall River and New Bedford says that “a waiver of the U.S. Jones Act” may be one way to facilitate a market in that area. A short-sea shipping study conducted for Transport Canada notes that while negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canadian government officials sought to have the Jones Act eliminated or changed.

The forces pushing to limit or eliminate the Jones Act always seem to be trying to find a loophole. Many of us have not forgotten that after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security granted a blanket Jones Act waiver for the movement of gasoline, jet fuel and other refined petroleum products. Almost immediately after the waiver was announced, charters with U.S. flag Jones Act vessels were cancelled, and soon foreign-built/foreign-crewed tankers were steaming along America’s Marine Highway between the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast — while U.S. ships crewed with U.S. mariners sat idle.

I am a firm believer in the Jones Act, because it helps protect shipyards, mariners and shipping companies in the United States. Its economic and national security benefits to our country are tremendous. U.S. shipyards bring billions of dollars into our economy and keep the domestic fleet strong by providing new vessels that meet our high U.S. standards. Unlike many foreign sailors, U.S. merchant mariners undergo extensive training and background checks, and when plying the waters along America’s Marine Highway, they are always on the lookout to help keep our coasts, Great Lakes and rivers safe. U.S. shipping companies in the Jones Act trade add billions of dollars to our economy by owning and operating U.S. flag vessels. Foreign companies have no allegiance to our country, and if allowed on Jones Act routes, would almost surely try to undercut and economically destroy U.S. shipping companies — if not our entire domestic shipping industry.

From my perspective as an actively sailing U.S. merchant mariner, increasing short-sea shipping is a worthy goal, but not at the expense of the Jones Act or the U.S. shipping industry. Eliminating the Jones Act, or granting waivers allowing foreign vessels on our domestic short-sea shipping routes is not only totally unacceptable, in my opinion, it’s un-American. If an unpatriotic proposal like that ever surfaces again, I will once more add my voice to those fighting it whenever and wherever asked — proudly and without hesitation.

Till next time I wish you all Smooth Sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff