‘Regulatory reform’ first shot in new attack on US maritime industry

Imagine this scenario: Our ports are filled with Bolivian- and Cypriot-registered ships running U.S. domestic coastwise cargo, many of them “rust buckets” crewed by minimally trained mariners and operated by unscrupulous vessel owners. Since “the repeal,” there have been Costa Concordia cruise ship and Sanchi oil tanker type disasters, resulting in dead American passengers and untold ecological devastation along our coasts. Regarding port security, because foreign crews are not citizens of our great country, they have little or no incentive to participate in the U.S. Coast Guard’s domestic anti-terrorism program, America’s Waterways Watch. Plus, unlike U.S. merchant mariners who must be screened and vetted by the Department of Homeland Security before they can be credentialed, foreign mariners have no such requirement. That, coupled with many countries’ lackadaisical attitude toward credential verification, has made it almost impossible for our port officials to know for sure if every crewmember on a foreign-flag ship is legitimate — or not. This lack of verification has had deadly results, with jihadists posing as crewmembers on a foreign-flag cargo ship successfully detonating a bomb that destroyed a major U.S. port, crippling the supply chain and disrupting our economy.

As our scenario continues: At the insistence of lobbying groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the Gulf of Mexico is filled with foreign-flag rigs drilling in our territorial waters. Recently, an explosion on one of them killed dozens of crew and caused an oil spill that has fouled a prime shrimping area. Our military, which always used to be able to rely on American ships to supply the troops, now has to use unreliable foreign-flag vessels. Already, some of those ships have refused to dock in Gwadar, Pakistan, claiming that carrying supplies for the U.S. military put the vessels at risk of retaliation by extremists. As a result, our troops in Afghanistan are not getting all the vital supplies they need. With foreign interests in control of our domestic maritime industry, U.S. merchant mariners are leaving in droves, unwilling to work for the Third World wages on substandard ships that have never had a Coast Guard inspection. Hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars feeding our economy and our country’s maritime sovereignty have been lost forever.

Although the aforementioned narrative is a work of fiction, it gives a glimpse of what I think will ultimately happen if our government gets rid of the laws that enhance and support our vital maritime interests. For hundreds of years, our elected officials have enacted maritime regulations specifically to benefit our country and protect our citizens. One of these is the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), which mandates that vessels carrying passengers from one U.S. port to another be registered and crewed in the United States. They also are subject to regular Coast Guard safety inspections to help safeguard the ships, the passengers and the crews. Speaking of crews, the PVSA also protects the livelihood of tens of thousands of American ferry workers such as my friend Noah, who’s master on a 383-foot U.S.-flag vessel for Washington State Ferries.

Another important maritime law is the Military Cargo Preference Act of 1904, which mandates that cargo owned by or purchased for our military be carried on U.S.-flag vessels. Kirstin, a chief mate I know, works on a U.S.-flag Bob Hope-class ro-ro hauling military tanks and trucks. Everyone on her ship is completely dedicated to carrying the supplies and equipment whenever and wherever our soldiers need them. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) prohibits foreign-flag vessels from carrying goods between U.S. ports, ensuring that only U.S.-flag, U.S.-built, U.S.-crewed and Coast Guard-inspected ships ply those domestic routes — enhancing not only our coastal and port security but our economic security as well. These are just a few of the many U.S. maritime laws that are in jeopardy today.

Enemies of our domestic maritime industry work continually to undermine the laws that benefit and strengthen our merchant marine, and would love nothing better than to destroy the U.S.-flag fleet for the money that would line their pockets. Recently, they were given a prime opportunity to attack us by the Trump administration. On May 17, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that it was seeking written comments from the public regarding “maritime regulatory reform.” Never in our nation’s history has there been such a concerted effort to question the statutes that are the very foundation of our domestic maritime industry. This unprecedented move could conceivably result in every U.S. maritime law being scrapped.

I read OMB’s announcement the day it came out and thought to myself, “Only two months to collect opinions about the value of laws that have been on the books for hundreds of years? Something fishy’s going on here.” Lending even more credence to this theory is the fact that OMB provided a list of questions in Section II of the notice that it admitted were specifically designed to “guide public input.” This guiding of public input is to me neither impartial nor objective. Instead, the list of leading questions alludes to the idea that the maritime regulations supporting and benefiting our industry may be “unnecessary,” “outdated” or “no longer justified” — all words our opponents love to throw out. In my opinion, there is obviously an agenda here.

This administration had no problems granting a number of Jones Act waivers to foreign-flag ships in 2017. In fact, it went out of its way to continue to allow foreign-flag oil industry vessels to take the place of U.S.-flag vessels and crews working in the Gulf of Mexico, even after the Marshall Islands-registered Deepwater Horizon disaster. Can there be any doubt that our maritime laws are in jeopardy? Although OMB has no ability to change the regulations itself, its report will influence policy and definitely will give plenty of fodder to enemies like those who had a hand in the recent Senate bill calling for a total repeal of the Jones Act.

We cannot let the perilous Dickensian scenario described at the beginning of this article to ever become a reality. I personally consider the Trump administration’s OMB “call for comments” to be the first salvo of a new and concerted assault on our country’s maritime industry. That is why I heartily recommend that every U.S. citizen reply by July 16 to let those bureaucrats know just how important you consider our maritime laws and our merchant marine to be. You can email your comments to OMB.DeregulatoryRFI@OMB.eop.gov.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

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

By Professional Mariner Staff