Since the 1980s, there have been foreign-flag ships working in U.S. territorial waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Officially permitted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), these vessels have skirted U.S. law by utilizing exemptions to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act. Transported from U.S. ports to oil and gas rigs working in our territorial OCS waters, huge amounts of oil field equipment and supplies are allowed to be carried on foreign-flag ships. U.S. vessel operators, merchant mariners and industry advocacy groups such as the Offshore Marine Service Association have lobbied for years to have these exemptions eliminated. This year it looked like there finally would be a breakthrough: Two days before President Trump’s inauguration, the CBP under President Obama proposed new rules revoking a number of the exemptions.
When the Trump administration took over in January, many in the U.S. maritime industry were buoyed by proclamations of putting “America first” and hoped that the days of foreign-flag operators working in our Gulf of Mexico OCS territorial waters would finally end. With the anticipation building, and after months of taking comments, the administration announced that a decision on the matter would be made public on May 10. What a shock it was to the industry when the CBP caved in to lobbying by oil and gas producers and groups such as the American Petroleum Institute. The proposed changes were rescinded and the Jones Act exemptions were kept in place. While thousands of U.S. credentialed merchant mariners are now languishing unemployed, foreign crews on foreign-flag vessels continue operating in our OCS territorial waters — taking away hundreds of millions of dollars in wages from U.S. seafarers. As Dan, an unemployed 1,600-ton master I know, told me, “I guess putting America first doesn’t apply to the U.S. merchant marine.”
I must admit that I was dismayed when I read the CBP announcement. Afterward, I thought about the decision and its negative effects on our domestic maritime industry. It became clear to me that this was yet another example of something I have learned during my years as a merchant mariner: The undeniable truth that our government impacts nearly every aspect of our professional lives, for both good and bad.
Undoubtedly spurred on by hours of listening to my Dad’s stories of sailing as an able seaman and boatswain on commercial vessels, I decided to make the merchant marine a career, and chose to attend the California Maritime Academy. With my family unable to help financially, luckily I qualified for federal educational grants and loans, and also earned a subsidy from the U.S. Maritime Administration to help pay my tuition. Without these, I surely never would have been able to afford the costs.
After graduation I got a job with a large West Coast towing company and soon started to realize that our government played an important role in my seagoing life as well. About six months after getting hired, I was sailing as a second mate on a 5,000-hp tug pulling a loaded gasoline barge from Beaumont, Texas, to Los Angeles. On a quiet night on watch off the coast of Belize, I was shooting the breeze with the able seaman. I told Val how great it was, after years of school, to be out sailing on my license and making money. In his Southern accent, he replied, “You can thank the Jones Act for that.” He was right. Because we were going from a U.S. port to a U.S. port with our cargo of gasoline, the Jones Act mandated that both our tug and barge be U.S.-flagged. Without that piece of government legislation, Val pointed out, we wouldn’t have had the job.
Until that time, my involvement with the U.S. government as a merchant mariner had been a good thing. Since then, I unfortunately have seen a trend toward government agencies and officials issuing policies and rulings that are increasingly detrimental to the U.S. merchant marine. Three years before the tragic 1989 oil spill, the U.S. Coast Guard allowed Exxon Shipping to cut the size of Exxon Valdez’s crew — trading technology for jobs. By 1990, Rob Quartel, a member of the Federal Maritime Commission under President George H.W. Bush, officially proposed eliminating the Jones Act. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development arbitrarily reduced, from 75 percent to 50 percent, the amount of international food aid from the United States that had to be carried on U.S.-flag ships. In 2015, Congress repealed the export ban on U.S. crude oil with absolutely no requirement that any of it be carried on U.S.-flag ships. This year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once again sponsored a bill that would eliminate the Jones Act. All of these were basically attacks on U.S. merchant mariners, the men and women who have always willingly risked their lives for our country when asked to transport whatever was needed, where and when it was needed.
For decades there has been, in my opinion, a methodical, deliberate chipping away of maritime laws and policies designed to benefit the U.S. merchant marine, escalating in recent years into an outright assault. As merchant mariners, we need to connect with government officials to make our opinions and viewpoints known. A good place to start is by pushing your company or union political action group to hire more lobbyists and do more lobbying to politically counteract those determined to destroy us. Then, I recommend getting personally involved — whether online (www.whitehouse.gov and www.congress.gov), by phone (call the White House at 202-456-1111 and Congress at 202-225-3121), or by writing letters and attending meetings. Our merchant marine is worth fighting for, but if we wait too long to act, there may not be much left to defend. In honor of all the sacrifices the merchant mariners who came before us made, and in consideration of all the hopes and dreams of those who will follow us, the time to fight back is now.
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 email@example.com.