Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Jones Act



Kind of like that.
Have you heard about the Jones Act recently? Maybe caught a hint of it during a news cast. Possibly you heard about it from a politician running through their list of media talking points. More than likely saw it mentioned in someone’s social media post.

Social media has been alight recently with posts about the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Most notably about how this almost 100 year old law has been hampering the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Not surprisingly, most of it has been wrong. Very wrong.

Even so, I tried to stay out of it. Seriously.
I tried.
I really did.

The problem is, no one, especially the ones squawking about it’s effects on the current recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, know jack-all about the Jones Act.
 Here is where this blog comes in to help you navigate (you’re welcome) the mass of misinformation currently being spread about the Jones Act and what the law actually entails.

Let me get this right out there at the beginning. The Jones Act is a Protectionist Law. You will get no argument from me on that point. But there are plenty of reasons for it to exist.

But let’s start with a basic “Cliff Notes” version of the Jones Act.
The Jones Act of 1920 is a cabotage law that regulates the Interstate transport of goods by water. Any cargo that originates in a US port, destined for another US port, must be transported by a US made vessel, which is crewed by US citizens, and owned by a US company. This law includes not only the contiguous US states, but the territories of the United States as well.
Doesn’t seem that difficult to understand, right?
Yet, here we are.

This year has been an exceptional bad year for hurricanes that have made landfall in the United States. Hurricane Harvey lashed the area between Corpus Christi and Matagorda, TX with strong winds and tidal surge. The storm then stalled out and dropped more than 3 feet of rain (in some areas double that) over the vast majority of the US Gulf coast. Flooding was a major problem and entire communities were swamped. The relief effort was enormous.

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, all eyes turned toward the Caribbean as the next hurricane formed. It steamrolled across the Leeward Island as a Category 5 and took aim on the mainland of the US. During this time, I boarded my tug off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida and immediately made the best speed possible northward and out of the path of the closing storm.
Our normal route (in red) vs. the predicted "spaghetti models of Hurricane Irma.
 And for good reason. My memories still fresh of the US flagged ship El Faro and it’s crew of 33, one of whom, Jeff Mathias, was a classmate of mine at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Who had left the same port of Jacksonville just shy of 2 years previously on it’s fateful last voyage before getting caught in Hurricane Joaquin and sinking with the loss of all aboard.

At the same time I was heading northward. My alma mater was preparing the school’s training ship Kennedy to head southbound. Loading the ship with relief supplies and preparing it to set sail for the flood devastated areas of Texas. The United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) had activated the school ship to provide support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), just as it had done in 2012 for Superstorm/Hurricane Sandy.  Also activated for the response was the Empire State IV, SUNY Maritime’s training ship, and Texas A&M University's T/S General Rudder. Together, these three vessels can not only bring relief supplies such as water and food, but also house over 1,200 relief workers, freeing up local hotels for displaced residents. All of the state Maritime Academy vessels not only act as training vessels, but are also part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), a collection of ships maintained by the Maritime Administration for use in times of national emergency. All crewed by US Merchant Mariners, and in the case of the Kennedy, some of the crew are personal friends of mine.
The Training Ship Kennedy. Not as cool as the TSPS!
Just after the Kennedy and the other training ships set sail for Texas, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys. The storm delayed the Kennedy in its voyage through the Florida Straits, but eventually it arrived with its relief supplies in Corpus Christi, Texas. Just in time for the next hurricane in line to bear down on the already ravaged US Virgin Islands.
Hurricane Maria destroyed whatever was still standing in the previously hurricane hit Virgin Islands and then took direct aim on Puerto Rico.

Which brings us up to speed.
Cue the reports that the Jones Act needs to go!

But here’s the thing.
The Jones Act isn’t having any negative affect on the relief effort in Puerto Rico. In fact, a strong US Merchant Marine is the reason why the island of Puerto Rico is getting the much needed support that it currently is.

One of the most visible groups in any response effort is the US military. A big, gray Navy ship loitering just off the coast is a pretty good cue that help is on the way. However, a US Navy ship is (as they love to say over the VHF radio) a warship. Guns, missiles, and things that go ‘BOOM’ galore. But as far as providing the essentials, like food and water for thousands. A US Navy warship just isn’t up to the task. Which is where the US Merchant Marine comes into play.

USNS Comfort
Let’s just take a very visible example in the response to Puerto Rico, the US Navy Hospital Ship Comfort. I saw a few social media posts from politicians up on high about how the government should activate the Comfort and send it immediately to Puerto Rico to assist. And it sounds like a good idea. Send the US Navy to help. It’s even right there in the name, US Navy Hospital Ship. Except it isn’t. 
Well, kind of. 
Which is where we lose a lot of people. The Comfort IS a Navy ship. However, it is crewed and manned with…wait for it…United States Merchant Marine personnel. The doctors and nurses are mostly US Navy and US Navy Reserve, but the ones who run the ship, are all US Merchant Mariners. Do away with the Jones Act, decimate the US Merchant Marine, and who is there to crew the vessel?
Navy Ship. Says so right there. Kind of.
 Truth be told, the Comfort is actually a “MSC” ship. MSC, is just another Navy acronym, which stands for Military Sealift Command. MSC ships operate hand in hand with the US Navy all over the world. They are the tankers, munitions, and supply ships which support the US Navy in their day to day operations. Take away the MSC support ships and the Navy can’t operate. Seriously. Who else can supply the aircraft carriers with aviation fuel? The destroyers with provisions? The landing craft with ammo? The Navy needs all of these things, constantly. And who mans the MSC ships? United States Merchant Mariners. Who do you think brought all of the military’s wonderful toys of destruction to them during the conflicts in the Middle East? Answer: MSC Ships. Many of them are prepositioned all over the globe ready to support the US military wherever they are needed at a moment’s notice. Every single one of them crewed by United States Merchant Mariners.
Navy ship? Nope. Military Sealift Command. Note the blue and yellow stripe on the stack.

Navy ship doing UNREP (Underway Replenishment) with a US Merchant Marine MSC ship.

Both Military Sealift Command. US Merchant Marine crews running both of them.

It is said that, “An Army marches on its stomach.”
The same can be said of the Navy. “The Navy sails on the back of the Merchant Marine.”

In addition, please don’t think that the US Merchant Marine is just the deep draft “Blue Water” merchant ships. It also includes the thousands and thousands of tugs, barges, ferries, passenger ships, ATB’s, and anything else that plies the coastal waters of the United States.The Jones Act specifically protects the Interstate trade of our country.
Jones Act ships being built in Philadelphia.

One of the many tug and barges that specifically supply Puerto Rico in the Jones Act trade.

Ocean-going Articulated Tug/Barge unit which is also a Jones Act vessel.

Perhaps a better example would be to use the airline industry. The airlines have their own set of laws that protect their own interests. It is completely acceptable for American Airlines to fly from Charlotte to Paris, France. Conversely, it is acceptable for Air France to fly from Paris to Charlotte.  But it is not lawful for Air France to fly from Charlotte to Denver. The airlines have protectionist laws against that. Nor could American Airlines fly from Paris to Nice. The French would frown upon our airlines trying to take over their own interstate transportation. 

The same holds true for US flagged shipping because of the Jones Act. It is perfectly acceptable for a US ship to go to Barcelona, Spain (been there myself). It is also acceptable for a foreign flagged ship to load in Dubai and come to New York. The ship can even discharge part of it's cargo in New York and then continue to Philadelphia to discharge the rest of it. However, it CANNOT load cargo in one US port and bring it to another US port. 

In reference to Puerto Rico, foreign flagged ships are more than welcome to bring their goods to the island anytime they please. Many times over the last few days I have heard that foreign flagged vessels that are going to Puerto Rico have to stop in the US and unload their cargo so that it can go to Puerto on a US flagged Jones Act vessel. This is 100%, categorically FALSE. The truth is, 70% of all ships that stop in Puerto Rico are foreign flagged. The Jones Act only affects cargo that originates in a US port. It is also true that most seafaring nations have a similar set of cabotage laws that protect their own shipping interests. Those countries are also interested in maintaining a strong maritime presence. They don't want to become reliant on another country's merchant fleet to deliver goods that they can transport themselves. And neither should the United States.

Believe me this post could go on for a quite a bit longer. The Jones Act is more than just the ships that call on Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands. There is so much more to it than just that small sampling of what we do.

Sadly, if you destroy the Jones Act, you destroy the Merchant Marine, the Navy, the shipbuilding, the shore side terminals, and open up our interstate commerce to substandard shipping. There is the law of unintended consequences that will reverberate throughout the coastal states and the entire country.
Getting rid of the Jones Act is an incredibly short-sighted, bad idea.

So, please, before you listen to some politician’s social media post, or someone’s opinion based on a newspaper article, take the time to do your own research. I am more than willing to answer any questions or comments you may have.
I know the Jones Act.
It is my job to.

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