While the subject matter is complicated, the upshot from a recent House hearing is crystal clear: America relies on a strong U.S. Merchant Marine, and with that in mind, the industry deserves prioritization during the pandemic.
Many other pro-maritime comments were voiced Feb. 9 during a hearing titled, “State of the U.S. Maritime Industry: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The hearing was conducted by the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Several House members were present in the hearing room in the nation’s capital, while others participated remotely, as did the panelists.
Testifying were Crowley Maritime Senior Vice President Mike Roberts, on behalf of the American Maritime Partnership (AMP, to which the SIU is affiliated); Jim Patti, president of Maritime Institute for Research And Industrial Development, on behalf of USA Maritime (also an SIU affiliate); Mario Cordero, chairman of the board of directors, American Association of Port Authorities; Ben Bordelon, chairman of the Shipbuilders Council of America; Lauren K. Brand, president of the National Association of Waterfront Employers; and Del Wilkins, president, Illinois Marine Towing.
In respective opening statements, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), chair of the full committee, and U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-California), subcommittee chairman, expressed unwavering support for the industry.
DeFazio stated, “In the year since the virus was first detected in the United States, the maritime industry has endured significant hardships and has experienced substantial impacts to business.
It is vitally important that this committee understand how the pandemic has affected the reliability and efficiency of our maritime industry and its workers, the gaps that still exist in protecting the workforce from the virus, the lessons that have been learned from the federal government’s response to the pandemic so far, and potential next steps to better protect the maritime industry and workforce from COVID-19 and any future public health crisis we may confront….
“The situation is complicated by the fact that certain portions of the industry were not faring well before the pandemic,” he continued. “The internationally trading fleet for instance, has shrunk to a paltry 85 vessels and carries less than 1.5% of the goods entering and exiting our ports. Without a robust U.S.-flag maritime industry, we would not have the mariners needed go to war or supply our internationally deployed members of the military…. The economy cannot recover without a working maritime supply chain.”
Carbajal briefly reviewed the key components of American-flag shipping and then added his support for the nation’s freight cabotage law.
“The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 or Jones Act safeguards our country and economy and provides guaranteed work to American merchant mariners; ensuring government and civilian goods, people and equipment are carried by U.S.- flagged ships and U.S. citizens,” he said. “In my district, which encompasses Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, and portions of Ventura County, maritime and seafaring is an essential way of life.”
He also noted that throughout the pandemic, vessel operators “have had to shoulder the burden of the increased costs of new safety measures, acquiring protective gear and complying with public health measures while other industries have received federal assistance. Requests for assistance have gone unanswered while demand on our ports and cargo carrying U.S. fleet only increases as American commerce increases. I applaud President Biden for affirming support for the Jones Act; the industry needs strong federal support in order to weather this storm.”
Roberts, speaking for the coalition that represents all segments of the domestic maritime industry, mentioned that the Jones Act supports around 650,000 American jobs while contributing $150 billion each year to the nation’s economy.
“The reason we have a Jones Act can be encompassed in one word – security,” Roberts stated. “The coastwise laws of the U.S. are essential to the continued economic security of the U.S. transportation system and to the maintenance of a U.S.-flag fleet to support that system. The Jones Act ensures that American mariners are constantly on the watch on our inland waterways, promoting homeland security. And finally, the Jones Act is critical to ensuring that our country has both the mariners and the sealift capacity to go to war, which is essential to our national security.
“The value of the Jones Act is even clearer during this pandemic,” he continued. “As can be seen by the breakdown of the supply chain for basic medical goods at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, America cannot be wholly dependent on foreign countries for our basic needs. The Jones Act ensures that America will have the ability to transport our own goods by water and a defense industrial base that is not hamstrung by unfair foreign competition. Today’s domestic U.S.-flag fleet has proven its capabilities to meet the demands of the pandemic, and our mariners have risen to the call of their essential worker status.”
Roberts said that while American mariners and vessels will continue to deliver, “there is more the government can do to support America’s maritime frontline workers to help keep them safe and able to keep domestic supply chains intact.”
He said the emergence of the offshore wind industry holds great promise for American-flag shipping, and then pivoted to China’s investment in maritime.
“China’s shipping and shipbuilding industries have experienced dramatic growth in recent years, fueled by its export economy and extraordinary support from the Chinese government,” Roberts noted. “The result is a Chinese commercial maritime industry that puts U.S. national security interests at risk both in peacetime and in the event of conflict. Americans have learned during the pandemic that depending on China for face masks and other critical supplies is not in our country’s best interest. America must develop a thoughtful and effective policy response to China’s maritime ambitions. A growing number of experts and scholars have begun to do this, and have found, among other things, that the starting place for such a policy is to reinforce and expand support for the American domestic maritime industry and the Jones Act.”
Roberts said in regard to the pandemic, the most important step requested by the industry as a whole is “to prioritize mariners for the COVID-19 vaccination and, in the interim, ensure that mariners have access to rapid testing. We were grateful that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recognized the importance of the maritime industry and ensured that maritime workers were broadly covered as part of the critical infrastructure guidance released in March. That recognition allowed the industry to continue operating but did nothing to help reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure while continuing the work. We also appreciate very much that Federal Maritime Commissioners Maffei and Bentzel recently urged the Biden Administration to prioritize mariners for vaccination and rapid testing, emphasizing the mariner’s critical role in moving medical supplies, personal protective equipment, and handling an unprecedented amount of consumer goods flowing into our nation’s ports. But that is not enough. It is past time that the federal and state government agencies having direct input and actual authority over mariner safety do likewise.”
Patti spoke on behalf of a coalition whose members include shipping companies operating vessels in the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP).
He said, “The development and implementation of programs and policies that support this fleet, enhance its economic viability and enable it to compete for a larger share of America’s foreign trade are extremely important to our ability to support the economic and military security of our country.”
After quickly recapping the merchant marine’s role as America’s fourth arm of defense and then touching on the general state of the industry, Patti turned to the global COVID-19 crisis.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, maritime labor and their U.S.-flag shipping companies have been working with each other as well as with a number of federal agencies and departments, including the Maritime Administration, the United States Coast Guard, the United States Transportation Command, the Department of State, the Federal Maritime Commission and others to put in place the measures that help protect the lives of American mariners and ensure that the essential economic and defense services provided by our industry remain available,” he stated. “The support given to our industry by these and other federal agencies is greatly appreciated. “While over the past 11 months safety practices and protocols have been developed and put in place within our industry there are still COVID-19 related issues that need to be resolved,” he continued. “Most importantly, while we clearly understand and appreciate that there are many segments of the American workforce who need expedited access to the COVID-19 vaccine, it is extremely important that American mariners and cadets working aboard Maritime Security Program vessels and other U.S.-flag vessels in the foreign trades receive such access. Otherwise, with the differences in vaccine administration procedures among the states, it may be months at the earliest before mariners receive a vaccine.”
Patti then detailed why mariners should be prioritized, reiterating their status as essential workers and the nature of the work itself in supporting U.S. economic and national security.
He proposed ways to attract and retain more shipboard manpower, including fully funding the newly created U.S. Tanker Security Fleet, enacted late last year.
“This fleet will be comprised of 10 U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed product tankers to help reduce our military’s reliance on foreign- flag vessels by increasing the amount of fuel supplied and transported by American mariners on U.S.-flag commercial vessels, consistent with the priorities of our national defense,” he said. “The 10-vessel tanker fleet will provide an employment base for approximately 500 American merchant mariners, helping to address and alleviate the current maritime manpower shortage.”