The U.S. maritime industry collectively should capitalize on the growing awareness of its essential roles.
Carl Bentzel, a commissioner with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), emphasized that view June 9 during the Maritime Trades Department Convention in Philadelphia.
The FMC is self-described as “the independent federal agency responsible for regulating the U.S. international ocean transportation system for the benefit of U.S. exporters, importers, and the U.S. consumer.”
Bentzel said that the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted “the essential character of transportation…. The U.S. Merchant Marine is an essential component of our industrial base and our security. We can’t rely on foreign shipping to provide our nation’s objectives.”
He also said that while the FMC is not involved in Jones Act issues, he strongly supports maintaining the century-old law, which is vital to U.S. national, economic and homeland security. (The Jones Act requires that cargo moving between domestic ports be carried aboard vessels that are crewed, built, flagged and owned American.)
“It was always something that offended me, that we would consider ceding our territory, our navigable waters, to some foreign nation,” Bentzel said regarding those who would weaken or eliminate the law. “It would be like giving up the state of Nebraska to another nation. We can’t consider that. It’s stunning when we even consider” such proposals.
“If you work in the United States, you should be subject to our laws. We should have U.S. health, safety and labor standards. It’s a disappointment to even have to argue this.”
He noted the devastating consequences Australia has experienced due to wiping out that country’s freight cabotage laws.
Bentzel added, “During the pandemic, Jones Act carriers are transporting cargo on a timely basis. It’s also getting there to the offshore islands and Puerto Rico. Rates have not gone up. By comparison, the shipping rates on (foreign flag) international cargo shipping have gone up 300 to 500 percent, and it’s taking two to three times longer to travel.”
The commissioner pointed out there aren’t many U.S.-flag ships trading internationally, which leaves the country potentially vulnerable.
“One-hundred percent of every single container used in the world is built by the Chinese government,” he said. “Forty-three percent off all ships are built by China,” while roughly 80 percent of the world fleet sails under runaway flags.
Bentzel then talked about the original debate concerning the Maritime Security Act of 1996 (a law that created the Maritime Security Program). He read comments from the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI). The senator explained the maritime industry’s importance and said we cannot rely on the goodwill of foreign nations to transport military cargo and other vital supplies.
“Those comments are applicable today, perhaps even more so,” Bentzel said.
He then focused on ways to grow the industry.
“We should look at this crisis (the pandemic) as an opportunity to make the case that we have to have a (stronger) U.S. presence in (international) shipping,” Bentzel said. “I am a regulator, but in my capacity, I will do anything I can to support and promote the presence of U.S.-flag shipping and U.S. Merchant Mariners.”
He concluded, “It is an industrial base that is strategically vital to the United States. We’ve spent too little energy and too little time and too little effort at the federal level doing what we could. I’m going to be working with you to do whatever I can, but it’s really up to your folks in Washington to come up with some plans. There is an opportunity; people recognize that our supply chain is handled by an industry. Before this (pandemic), goods just magically appeared. Let’s capitalize.”