Localized Piracy Obscures Real Issues for Todays Mariner

Maritime executives everywhere should redouble their efforts to recruit, train and retain mariners even as current events draw their attention elsewhere.

Yesterday’s brazen attack on a U.S. flag containership in the Gulf of Aden, the sixth vessel seized in less than one week in the chaotic region, only served to drive home the premise that peace at sea cannot be achieved without first implementing a shoreside solution. According to a local Puntland security minister, International navies were doomed to failure in their bid to remove the threat of Somali piracy if they do not first commit more towards assisting local authorities on the ground. Puntland is the main hub for piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the minister’s pleas only echoed our February 5th editorial entitled, “Attacking Piracy: the Long Road to Nowhere,” calling for more of the same (click HERE to read that piece).

Beyond the obvious crisis mounting in the region – and despite the best efforts of a now considerable naval contingent – my thoughts today go more towards the plight of seamen everywhere, and for reasons that are just as important but perhaps less obvious than the threat of piracy. And piracy is just one of a myriad of critical issues facing today’s mariner and those who hope to engage their services. Make no mistake about it: those issues are just as important as today’s financial crisis or anything else, for that matter, facing today’s collective, global shipping community.

Shipping companies are not adding E-mail, Internet and other creature comforts to the seagoing compensation package because they are good fellows. And, I’m not saying that they are not. But, lost in the gloom and doom of a shaken global economy and perhaps as much as 15 percent of the world’s boxship capacity on the hook for lack of cargo, the focus of maritime executives everywhere has also predictably shifted to pressing financial matters and away from the important issue of recruitment, training and retention of qualified mariners. Just one year ago, the effort to train, treat and compensate (in a variety of ways) the world’s seafaring professionals had finally kicked off in a robust way. At the time, the issue of mariner numbers and competency was arguably the thorniest issue for maritime operators everywhere.

Today, the mariner crisis still looms large, especially in the LNG and LPG trades where specialized skills are particularly important. According to at least one prominent shipping CEO (you’ll need to pick up a copy of the latest MarEx print issue to find out who), the problem has eased considerably (and predictably) in the bulk and boxship trades. At the same time, however, only 50 percent of America’s six state maritime academy graduates are choosing to study for and obtain a merchant mariner’s document. The disturbing trend – despite Herculean efforts by MARAD to reverse this metric – is threatening to turn these schools into “maritime academies by name only.” Obscured perhaps by the global downturn, the real progress being made elsewhere could lose steam, and quickly. That would be a tragedy.

There is good news. Maritime education seminars like the Education Summit at Mass. Maritime Academy (15-17 April) and this summer’s 2009 International eLearning Symposium sponsored by the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School give ample reason to believe that global training efforts are strengthening daily, with cooperation from all sectors. In terms of attracting new talent to the game, the Pacific Maritime Institute’s Workboat Mate program is already yielding high caliber, mature officers for those trades. Closer to home still, Art Sulzer has pioneered and championed the practice of carrying the maritime curriculum closer to where it ultimately can do the most good – on the high school and middle school levels. Those students who understand the merits of a career spent at sea, from an early age, will eventually comprise the next generation of mariners – here and abroad.

There is much left to be done and this is no time to let up. Pay scales that languished badly in the aftermath of a poor shipping climate for mariners in the 1980’s and beyond have come back robustly, although I would question whether the $56,000 that I brought home in 1983 for six months work as a Second Mate on a chemical tanker can be matched in terms of today’s spending dollars by a similar officer now making (so they tell me…) $80,000. Now, I’m guessing that our maritime executive readers won’t like my math, but inflation far outstrips these gains (?) achieved by today’s mariners.

Finally, and if Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Jim Oberstar (D-MN) are following along, then I will go on record as supporting the concept of tax relief for U.S. mariners who effectively operate more than six months per year in an ex-patriot status. This advantage, long enjoyed by mariners elsewhere, has always leveled the earnings playing field of certain foreign flag mariners whose tax-exempt status increased their spending capabilities (arguably) beyond those of American mariners making far more on paper. This simple solution – long kicked around but never acted upon – and applicable to a microscopic percentage of the general population, would eliminate any global pay disparities and yes, potentially reduce the amounts actually paid out by today’s domestic Jones Act carriers.

There are 100 more issues to contemplate for today’s mariners. Among them are the issues of adequate and reasonable shore leave in the face of increasingly stringent security measures, the obvious scourge of piracy and its psychological impact on ship’s crews, and no less important, the concept of ensuring that stranded mariners in the cases of arrested or abandoned vessels are treated humanely and paid for their services. These are not just labor matters; rather they are worthwhile and potentially “win-win” endeavors, from which management and seafarers alike can ultimately benefit. Eventually, the dearth of global credit that has its stranglehold on this sector of the economy will pass. So, too, will the piracy crisis off the coast of Somalia. The need for adequate numbers of competent, enthusiastic ship’s crews will not. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685