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Zuidema: Security, cost are factors in seafarer access debate

Apr 7, 2015 11:23 AM

The U.S. Coast Guard is now reviewing comments on its proposals for changes to regulations on seafarers’ access through all terminals regulated by the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA). The language of free and timely transit through facilities is in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, but it has yet to be put into practice. Made public on Dec. 29, and with a public hearing in Washington on Jan. 23, the official comment period closed on Feb. 27. 

The Coast Guard is now combing through the many submissions as it works toward formal proposals. Coast Guard officials have noted that the great majority of submissions are basically positive, but that they are taking a close look at the detailed comments of all individuals and organizations to make the regulations as balanced as possible.

A survey of the comments (see USCG-2013-1087 under regulations.gov) reveals the whole cross section of the maritime industry. Seafarers, maritime unions and shore-based seafarers’ welfare providers formed the bulk of comments. In comments on behalf of AOS-USA, Sinclair Oubre noted that “if our nation has a goal of safe waterfronts, facilitating seafarer shore leave and allowing seafarer welfare agents to access visiting vessels will directly reduce those work factors that cause low morale and fatigue.”

Though there are more points of debate, a significant one is the cost. As the current proposal is written, the facility owners and operators would bear the cost. Kurt Nagle, executive director of the American Association of Port Authorities, was in general agreement with the proposals, but he was concerned that making the cost fall on the facilities was not actually part of the original language of the Coast Guard Authorization Act: “The responsibility and cost to provide proper, safe and healthy working conditions, such as transit to land, should be that of the vessel owner and operator.” 

Shipowners and operators did not object to bearing the burden, unless it is excessive. In comments on behalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America (CSA), Sean Kline noted the shipowners and operators were not avoiding cost, but want it to be reasonable: “To achieve this, CSA understands the vessel owner may be expected to pay a reasonable fee for these services ... However, this proposed rule will be circumvented if language is not added to designate ‘reasonable’ fees ‘subject to review by the COTP’,” referring to captain of the port.

From the seafarers’ perspective, the overall implications seem clearly positive. Besides ensuring access for the small percentage of seafarers who have shore passes but are still denied shore leave, these proposals should have generally positive impact on seafarer morale — especially for those who have been charged excessive fees or had to pass many miserable hours waiting for a transportation service that is delayed for no clear reason. 

But, we are not talking just about foreign seafarers. Reading through the submissions one can find many comments from American seafarers themselves about exorbitant costs and wait times. Both the CSA and many members of all the American seafarers’ unions had examples of five- to 10-minute trips that were consistently late and ran up to several hundred dollars. 

Shore-based seafarers’ welfare organizations also applauded these proposals. Besides facilitating their work, they felt these proposals represented a kind of change in mentality that one ought to honor: maritime security is not only about keeping the bad guys out, but rather facilitating access for the good guys. 

As Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, has recently noted, the greatest threat to the maritime world in the next generation is not piracy or terrorism, as bad as those are, but keeping the lines of trade and access open. Hence, proposals to better facilitate access might be the best kind of maritime security in action. 

Jason Zuidema is the executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA). NAMMA exists to connect and support its more than 50-member seafarers’ centers in their work of providing transportation, communication services and a friendly welcome to ports across North America. For more information, visit namma.org.

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