The following is the text of a report from the Navy League's Seapower magazine:
(WASHINGTON) — Improving and strengthening the Jones Act, along with being more unified, were the themes echoed by mariners and officials during the U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual National Maritime Day observance ceremony.
“The nation's merchant mariners have always answered the call,” Gen. Darren McDew, commander, U.S. Transportation Command, said during the May 23 event at Transportation Department headquarters in Washington.
McDew said the merchant marines offer a crucial capability, and although there are currently around 11,000 merchant mariners working in the United States, that number needs to grow.
Rear Adm. Thomas K. Shannon, commander of the Military Sealift Command, said the U.S. mariners are the most skilled and qualified in the industry, but they are facing obstacles.
There are presently fewer than 80 U.S.-flagged ships trading internationally, which is down from more than 120 three years ago. Also, the average age of ships in the fleet is more than three decades old.
Saying the small pool of mariners cannot be sustainable long-term, Shannon said as lawmakers spar over the national defense spending bill they must be mindful that the long-term military strategy partly hinges on the merchant marine fleet.
Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Co., said merchant mariners are vital to the economy and the ongoing modernization of the fleet is an example of the strength of the fleet.
“It’s important that this country invests in maritime … the key is a strong Jones Act,” he said.
The act, which controls coastwise trade within the United States and determines which ships may lawfully engage in that trade and the rules under which they must operate, helps companies like his, Barker said.
As larger ships are built and the Panama Canal expansion project nears completion — scheduled for the end of this year — the United States must also ensure port infrastructure can handle the modern ships of today and tomorrow, he added.
“We must find a way the fleet can complete with the world market,” Barker said, noting that pushing for new technology will help with this as the maritime fleet needs to invest in cutting-edge technology while also understanding they can do more with the Jones Act fleet.
There are more than 42,000 vessels in the Jones Act fleet, from tugs and barges to tankers and containerships.
Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, said lawmakers need to invest in maritime workers and not undermine them.
“We need not only a vision for this industry but we need to execute it,” he said. Wytkind advocated for expanding the Maritime Security Program, thinking of long-term ways to grow within the industry, investing in port infrastructure and hiring more mariners, and using the balance of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
He also said the industry does not seem as united as it should be.
“We should be working together,” he said.