US ship pilots: Cutting rates would undermine Great Lakes safety

The following is the text of a news release from the Lake Pilots Association:

(PORT HURON, Mich.) — A lawsuit filed by foreign shipping companies against the U.S. Coast Guard over the 2016 pilotage rates would undermine Great Lakes safety and environmental protection if successful, a group of American ship pilots said today.

Every foreign ship that enters the Great Lakes must secure the services of an American (or Canadian) ship pilot to help direct the vessel, ensure safety, and avoid environmental incidents. American pilots are among the most highly trained mariners in the world and often have decades of expertise and local knowledge in specific geographical areas, a sharp contrast to foreign ship captains who may never have navigated on the Great Lakes.

Foreign shipping companies pay fees to cover the cost of pilot services at levels established by the Coast Guard after a transparent public comment process. The Coast Guard’s 2016 rate levels are based on recommendations from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the Great Lakes Pilotage Advisory Committee, public comments, and a ratemaking structure set out in federal law.

In establishing the new rate, the Coast Guard said the American pilotage system has been underfunded by $20 million from 2004-2015. “As a result,” the agency said, “the pilotage associations could not provide sufficient compensation to attract and retain qualified pilots, leading to pilot shortages and associated traffic delays. In turn, these shortages meant that each pilot had to carry an excessive workload and forego needed rest and training.”

A coalition of more than 100 Great Lakes environmental groups, local government officials, other leading Great Lakes officials and private citizens who live in the Great Lakes region supported the Coast Guard’s 2016 rate proposal, in many cases because of the environmental protection benefits provided by pilots.

However, on May 31 a group of foreign corporations that own fleets of ships filed a lawsuit to overturn the final rate and, which, if successful, would slash needed funding.

“The Coast Guard made clear that the 2016 pilotage ratemaking was designed to address previous deficiencies and build a dependable pilotage system that, first and foremost, protects the Great Lakes,” stated Capt. Dan Gallagher, president of the Lakes Pilots Association Inc. (based in Port Huron, Mich.); Capt. John Swartout, president of the Western Great Lakes Pilots Association (Superior, Wis./Duluth, Minn.); and Capt. John Boyce, St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots Association (Cape Vincent, N.Y.), members of the three American pilotage associations, in a written statement. “The 2016 rate level was developed to ensure adequate pilot numbers, infrastructure, training, navigation equipment, safety gear, pilot rest, facilities, and other expenses, including pilot costs that are essential to a system that protects the world’s largest freshwater body. It was extremely disappointing that these foreign corporations have decided to challenge it, knowing that the changes they have demanded would save them money but undermine safety and environmental protection.”

“Because we not only work, but also live and raise our families on the shores of these waters, it is shocking to us that those foreign shipping companies, which benefit immensely from the use of these waters and who have benefited from being undercharged by $20 million over the last decade, would oppose a program to make sure the Great Lakes are adequately protected,” the pilot presidents declared.

The pilot presidents said they found the lawsuit particularly troubling given that government-imposed Canadian shipping fees assessed on foreign shipping companies on the Great Lakes are nearly 15 times greater than comparable American shipping fees.

Foreign shipping companies who have filed include Brochar KB (Sweden), Canfornav, Inc. (Canada), Fednav International Ltd. (Canada), and Polska Zegluga Morska (Poland). Other ports and associations with ties to the foreign shipping companies also joined the lawsuit.

By Professional Mariner Staff