New STCW regs may mean more training and greater expenses for U.S. mariners

The U.S. Coast Guard is preparing to update its rules for Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping to bring the U.S. regs in line with those of other nations.

Critics say the proposed changes — to be finalized after a public comment period closed in February — will make it harder and more expensive to move up the ranks.

“The whole impetus behind this was to come into as full compliance as best we can with the STCW convention, which we are signatory to, so it’s law,” said Mark Gould, the Coast Guard’s project manager for the regulation overhaul.

According to the notice published by the Coast Guard in the Federal Register, the amendments incorporate the results of the 1978 convention (formally known as the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) and “lessons learned from implementation of the STCW convention and STCW code through the interim rule and attempt to clarify those regulations that have generated confusion in the past.”

Gould concedes the proposed changes that follow the 1997 interim rule and subsequent amendments, which are detailed in a document several hundred pages long, have created some confusion as well as complaints. Most of the complaints are about the biggest change: elimination of the 500-ton master’s license, which would require a mariner who wants to move up to jump from the 200-ton license to 1,600 tons.

Other amendments would bring changes to sea-time rules, add training and classroom requirements for licensed mariners, change the classification of articulated tug-barges for calculation of towing-vessel sea time, create an “ice navigator” designation and add requirements for licensing to work in the offshore oil industry.

“Because the STCW does not have endorsements for 500 grt, or the international tonnage equivalent, the Coast Guard is proposing to remove that level endorsement from the oceans and near-coastal progression,” Gould said. “Under SCTW those mariners serving on vessels between 200 grt and 1,600 grt must all demonstrate the same knowledge… So the Coast Guard sees no need to maintain the 500-grt endorsement. However, in an effort to ease any burden created by removing the 500-grt endorsement, the Coast Guard is proposing to revise the service requirements necessary to obtain the 1,600-grt endorsement by lowering the minimum required tonnage of service vessels used to qualify for this endorsement.”

Gould added, “We have received a lot of calls and e-mails from people who are concerned about this.” After the record closed in February following a written comment period and testimony at four public hearings around the country, “we will review all the comments and take them into consideration.” He said there’s no way to tell how long the review will take before a decision is made final.

Among those opposing the proposal is the National Mariners Association. Its secretary, Richard A. Block, said the new rules will create problems, especially for operators of vessels under 1,600 tons in the U.S.

“Internationally, I can understand why it’s necessary,” Block said. “Our mariners need to comply with the same type of regulations that everybody else in the world does on international voyages.”

But Block said when amendments to implement STCW began to be formulated in 1993, “nobody really consulted people who worked off the coast in the offshore oil industry or coastwise towing. And consequently they just dumped all this foreign material on us. There are some parts of this rulemaking that we think need to be reconsidered.”

But he added that “there are probably some things that need to be done” to update the training regulations. “One thing I am in favor of changing is the wording of the rulemaking to make it closer to the other regulations that (U.S.) mariners have to deal with.”

Edward Schultz, a marine licensing counselor and lecturer at the Seamen’s Church Institute, called the changes long overdue. “The U.S. is really the only one that is behind the times,” he said. “All the other countries in the world are based on the IMO (International Maritime Organization) regulations, which set the standards for STCW. The U.S. is a signatory country for IMO. The U.S. is the only country that has its own set of rules and regulations, which do not comply all the time with the IMO and STCW.”

Domestic voyages within a country’s geographical boundary or line of demarcation do not need to be in compliance with STCW for vessels less than 200 gross tons such as tugboats, Schultz noted. Vessels over that size anywhere in the world have to be in compliance with STCW if they travel outside of their country’s boundary line. “But our compliance is not the same. And a lot of our licensing schemes are not the same,” such as the safety training requirements for able seamen.

Because of that discrepancy, Schultz said, “vessels were getting delayed because they didn’t have the documents as per the STCW code. The Coast Guard now is trying to align their 46 CFR regulations with the STCW code.”

Once the regulations are aligned, the inspections of mariner documents should be much more straightforward, with fewer delays. “It makes it a lot easier for the other countries,” he said.

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff