Keep Commerce Flowing: Strengthening a Vital Coast Guard Partnership

barges on mississippi
File image courtesy USCG

Published Sep 23, 2020 11:16 AM by Admiral James Loy, USCG (Ret.'d) and Jennifer Carpenter

The devastation in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricanes Laura and Sally is the latest reminder of the extraordinary dedication of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. They are, as the Coast Guard motto conveys, Semper Paratus – Always Ready – to put themselves in harm’s way in service to our nation, whether by pulling people from rooftops as floodwaters rise; intercepting narcotics shipments; preventing terrorists from using our domestic waters to attack us; or serving overseas in combat operations. 

While it may not capture headlines the way some other Coast Guard missions do, the Coast Guard is also responsible for ensuring the safe and efficient transport of commerce and people throughout our nation’s Marine Transportation System, a vast network consisting of 95,000 miles of shoreline, 25,000 miles of navigable channels, over three hundred ports, and other critical infrastructure. This system accounts for nearly $5 trillion of economic activity each year, and is integral to America’s economy, security and way of life.

The Coast Guard takes on this mission with characteristic dedication and resolve but does not do it alone. The close partnership between the Coast Guard and the American maritime industry plays a critical role in both the flow of commerce and the preservation of homeland security on our waterways. So it is fitting that following the Coast Guard’s 230th birthday last month, this month we recognize another significant milestone in the life of this vital and unique branch of the U.S. armed forces: the 25th anniversary of the formal safety partnership between the Coast Guard and the American Waterways Operators, the trade association of the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry. 

The oldest public-private partnership between the Coast Guard and its stakeholders, the Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership’s mission is to bring the Coast Guard and industry together to continuously improve safety, security and environmental stewardship. Over the past twenty-five years, the partnership has produced dozens of cooperative initiatives aimed at eliminating crew fatalities, preventing oil spills, managing cybersecurity risks, and ensuring safe navigation in busy waterways. 

The Safety Partnership is just one example of the broader commitment between the Coast Guard and maritime industry to work together to preserve safety, security and prosperity on our nation’s waterways. That commitment was evident on 9/11, when commercial vessels answered the call to help evacuate 500,000 people from Manhattan; it was evident when the Coast Guard and AWO embarked upon a fifteen-year collaboration to raise safety standards across the towing industry; and it is on quiet display every day on the water, where commercial mariners and Coastguardsmen-and-women work together to keep vital cargo moving, prevent accidents and save lives.     

Ensuring the long-term vitality of the Marine Transportation System will require public policies that keep this critical Coast Guard-industry partnership enduring into the future. 

The Jones Act – the foundational law of the American maritime industry, requiring that cargo traveling between two U.S. ports be transported on vessels that are American-built, -owned and -crewed – is fundamentally what makes this partnership possible. Without the Jones Act, we risk losing our maritime industry to heavily subsidized foreign vessels and crews operating on our domestic waters. That would present a major national and homeland security problem, and cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs. 

Cybersecurity is another priority for the Coast Guard and the maritime industry, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the prevalence of remote work has further heightened the threat of, and potential vulnerability to, cyberattacks. Policies that facilitate mutual Coast Guard / industry awareness of these threats and commitment to preventative action will be critical to protecting the Marine Transportation System.

In addition to strengthening the system’s information infrastructure, it is also essential to invest in the physical infrastructure of our waterways to ensure the safe and efficient flow of commerce and meet shipper demand. That means modernizing locks and dams along our inland rivers, funding the deepening of our coastal ports, and recapitalizing the Coast Guard’s buoy tender fleet so it can maintain the navigational aids that are crucial to preventing accidents on our busy waterways.

Finally, the partnership works best when it is built on a foundation of effective national regulations, uniformly and consistently applied to the operation of vessels in interstate and international commerce. The Coast Guard and the maritime industry have a solid record of achieving positive safety and environmental results across the country when working together at the federal level. A national, uniform system of maritime regulation, rather than a patchwork of conflicting or duplicative state and local regulations, is the best model for achieving those results. 

Maritime commerce has been part of the lifeblood of our extraordinary nation since its founding. The Coast Guard-industry partnership on which maritime commerce and security rest today should be recognized and strengthened to meet the challenges of the future.  

Admiral James Loy, USCG (Ret.) served as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security and as the 21st Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. He was a founding partner of the Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership in 1995. Jennifer Carpenter is President & CEO of The American Waterways Operators.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.