Despite ongoing efforts to unfairly discredit a key United States maritime law, a recent wave of media coverage is helping to set the record straight.
Articles about the Jones Act (both online and in print) have reinforced what the domestic maritime industry has known all along – namely, that the longstanding law is vital to America’s national, economic and homeland security. Some of the recent coverage also reinforced the Jones Act’s critical role in helping facilitate delivery of relief cargoes to Puerto Rico.
The Jones Act requires that cargo moving between U.S. domestic ports is carried on vessels that are crewed, built, owned and flagged American. On the books since 1920, it has always enjoyed strong bipartisan political support and military backing. Nevertheless, the law also regularly comes under fire from those who either truly don’t understand it or whose agendas don’t include preserving the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Among those recently speaking out for the nation’s freight cabotage law were U.S. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby; Matson Navigation President and CEO Matt Cox; Crowley Maritime Puerto Rico Vice President Jose Ayala; and, from the law firm K&L Gates, Mark Ruge, Darrell L. Conner and Sarah M. Beason.
Speaking to port and inland waterway officials and security industry representatives Feb. 8 in Newport News, Virginia, Buzby spotlighted the direct connection between the Jones Act and America’s military capabilities. Many of the civilian mariners who sail in the Jones Act trades would also be available to crew up military support ships in times of need.
“The stakes surrounding our nation’s homeland security and national defense have never been higher,” Buzby said, according to an article in The Virginian-Pilot.
A few weeks earlier, during a mid- January hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives, Buzby cited “the critical role that the Jones Act plays. A lot of people, I think, focus on strictly an economic view of the impact of the Jones Act and fail to recognize the significance to national security.”
And, at an industry event late last year, he criticized the media for scapegoating the Jones Act in its coverage of Puerto Rico relief operations.
“The vital [relief] contribution of U.S.- flagged Jones Act shipping was obliterated by a barrage of false narratives and uninformed reporting,” Buzby said.
Cox honed in on the Puerto Rico situation during remarks at a Propeller Club event Feb. 6 in southern California. According to an article in the Journal of Commerce, Cox asserted that shipping rates between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland are the lowest in the Caribbean and as much as 20 to 50 percent lower than those of foreign-flag services to other islands in the region.
“Dedicated service to Puerto Rico provides price efficiencies,” he said.
Cox also pointed out that two-thirds of the cargo arriving in Puerto Rico is carried aboard foreign-flag ships.
The headline on the K&L Gates Piece succinctly captured much of the media coverage of the maritime law and the territory. It read: “The Eerie Similarities Between The Gulf Spill In 2010 And Hurricane Maria In Puerto Rico 7 Years Later: How the Facts About the Jones Act Got Thrown Overboard.”
In part, the article pointed out, “The massive public attention focused on the Jones Act in Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria was eerily analogous to the public spotlight on the law during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the “Gulf Spill”) in the spring of 2010. In both cases, the Jones Act was almost immediately singled out for public criticism as an impediment to the recovery efforts. In both cases, many of the criticisms reflected a material misunderstanding of the mechanics of the Jones Act and the operational rhythms of the domestic maritime industry. In both cases, opponents used the Jones Act as a political tool to attack the sitting president, criticizing him for not waiving the Jones Act to assist with the relief effort. And, in both cases, at the end of the day, it was clear that the Jones Act had been falsely accused – that is, that the law had in no way impeded the recovery efforts. One lesson is abundantly clear: In the middle of a national emergency, political crisis, humanitarian disaster, and media circus, the facts sometimes get left by the wayside.”
The writers described the Jones Act as “a foundational law of the American maritime and industry” and added that dozens of other countries maintain similar laws.
Turning back to Puerto Rico, they continued, “Similar to the Deepwater Horizon crisis, critics argued that the Jones Act was impeding the delivery of relief cargoes to Puerto Rico. However, it was soon proven that getting the goods to the island was not the problem. Instead, the goods were piling up at Puerto Rico’s ports because the inland infrastructure necessary to deliver the goods from the ports to the people was completely destroyed. The U.S. Coast Guard recognized this problem when they noted in a Marine Safety Information Bulletin that “the sheer number and size of vessels [from around the nation] entering the [Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands] have led to congestion and logistical issues which may result in the delay of recovery activities.” Similarly, congressional leaders who studied the issue recognized that a short-term waiver had no effect on the provision of goods in Puerto Rico, since “supplies have been getting to the island and have been backlogged at the ports, due to the devastation of logistics on the land.”
They concluded, “During two of the largest disasters of the last decade, the Jones Act has been unfairly blamed for preventing the quick provision of necessary support. Yet in both situations, as the facts now show, the American domestic maritime industry was an integral part of the recovery effort.”
Finally, Ayala submitted an op-ed to the Jacksonville Business Journal in which he detailed the robust efforts by Crowley and other Jones Act carriers to assist the people of Puerto Rico. He described sacrifices made by Crowley employees who put off trying to take care of their own respective properties in order to take part in the relief mission.
“The dedicated response by [individual employees], Crowley and other U.S. maritime companies resulted truly because our U.S.-flag carriers operate the world’s most dependable and efficient cargo shipping supply chain between the U.S. mainland – particularly Jacksonville – and Puerto Rico,” Ayala wrote. “The longstanding U.S. cabotage law called the Jones Act is the foundation for this unparalleled supply chain service…. It has allowed our company and other U.S. carriers to make major investments in American jobs, vessels and infrastructure to modernize this fast, direct and modern cargo pipeline.”
He continued, “Despite the myths, these economies of scale and efficiencies allow Jones Act carriers to offer less expensive shipping rates to and from Puerto Rico than foreign-flag ships operating between the U.S. and the nearby Caribbean islands…. While recovery will take time, U.S. maritime workers are committed to Puerto Rico’s recovery for the long haul.”
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