The May 15-16 edition of your paper included an article titled, “Administration decides to let maritime subsidies expire.” The article was deeply disturbing not only in its errant facts, but its implications.
First of all, Sea Land is not a subsidized company. Granted, the operating subsidies have helped keep what few ships we have left running, but eliminating these is only a part of the problems encountered in our maritime fleet.
It’s impossible for our commercial fleet to compete with the U.S.-owned foreign flag ships when we’re subjected to strict rules, regulations and standards. The playing field isn’t level as they carry our cargo without paying taxes, registration fees, nor practicing our safety and environmental standards. We have to compete against ships built in yards we helped rebuild after our wars in Japan and Korea, and with other subsidized yards throughout the world.
We’ve recently observed large maritime disasters. Despite an aging fleet, the U.S. merchant fleet has the best record for safety. When an American-owned ship, the Exxon Valdez, had a devastating accident, we were overwhelmed with the resulting damage. The fact that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to clean it up is rarely mentioned.
The Braer, a U.S.-owned foreign flag tanker, ran aground causing a spill larger than the Exxon Valdez. I’ve seen very little press about it, and the company responsible for it has done little in the cleanup.
During Operation Desert Storm, we had to employ the help of foreign ships. Some U.S.-owned foreign flag ships refused to sail in the Gulf, while others gouged the U.S. taxpayer for double the tonnage fees received for our ships. We pay exorbitant sums keeping a ready reserve fleet because we don’t have a large, active merchant marine. The troubles encountered when activating these ships are numerous when these funds would be better served in operating ships available ASAP because they’re already running. The fact that this adds greatly to our economy is another strong argument toward restoring our merchant fleet.
The Department of Defense failed to get a study of its needs out in time to give the maritime industry a boost. The DOD has also been unwilling to assume any costs of operating a U.S. flag fleet. They’ve supported a modern (600-vessel Navy fleet) while our commercial fleet has dwindled to 340 older vessels.
What is the mission of a country’s navy? We should have (many times) more merchant ships, over Navy vessels. The costs of a few Navy vessels would more than cover the cost of rejuvenating our fleet, but military machines have taken precedent over productive machines. It’s time to change this.
The merchant marine needs help from our government and legislature as they have contributed to our demise. In these tight budget times it’s tough to expect all the help necessary — but consider that our maritime programs have been one of the few programs to give us a positive return on the monetary investment. Productive jobs ashore and at sea will be created — heaven knows we need them. Alan R. Kane Penobscot