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Thursday, February 9, 2023

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U.S. Coast Guard: Cherry-Picking is Not an Option

Posted to Global Maritime Analysis with Joseph Keefe (by on September 1, 2010

STCW Convention protocol to be followed to the letter, says Jeffrey Lantz, Director of National and International Standards. DHS provides clarification on a number of issues. The future of MERPAC, other industry advisory committees and U.S. training protocols still remains cloudy.

STCW: is the law of the sea…

Responding directly to our August 10th article entitled, “STCW Compliance: will we or won’t we,” the U.S. Coast Guard’s Director of National and International Standards has affirmed the U.S. position on STCW compliance, especially as it relates to the so-called “Manila Amendments.” Set to come into force in January 2012, the Manila Amendments promise the advent of a myriad of changes for the world’s professional mariner population. In a letter dated August 18th, Jeffrey Lantz told MarPro, “Cherry-picking is not an option. The United States has fulfilled its responsibilities and obligations to date and will continue to do so in the future.” Erasing any doubt as to the direction of U.S. policy in the near term, the declaration also possibly signals a watershed moment for the American system of maritime academy training. Not everyone will be happy about that.

The Coast Guard’s latest edict dispelled a great deal of uncertainty as to the intended level of U.S. compliance with future, phased-in aspects of the STCW code. In contrast, Coast Guard presenters at the 2nd annual International eLearning conference in July were reluctant to say as much and left attendees scratching their heads as to what might come next. And as if that wasn’t enough, following closely on the heels of that event was an August 6th E-mail message which told all 19 Merchant Marine MERPAC committee members that the Fall MERPAC meeting scheduled for September 8th and 9th in San Diego had been cancelled. The MERPAC Charter now apparently sits on the desk of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano awaiting her signature. Perhaps only one of a hundred items on her to-do list – and apparently not very high in priority – the delayed Charter documentation has created a migraine headache for the Coast Guard at a time when it is desperately trying to win back the trust of industry and arguably had started to make some headway in that regard.

What it means to you

With one mystery solved and another still brewing, the Coast Guard will now turn its attention to providing for a smooth implementation of the new STCW protocols and perhaps, the preparations for still another to come. Still on the horizon is a (primarily) Scandinavian proposal to require U.S. maritime cadets to come into parity with international officer candidates who now have to log at least one year at sea before being eligible to receive their first seagoing license. In the United States, only the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy – with its inside track to available seagoing cadet billets – can achieve that standard today.

Some maritime educators, led by Mass. Maritime President RADM Richard Gurnon, believe that the rule, if enacted, will mean the end of the U.S. training system which models itself on a traditional four-year college calendar. A full year of sea time, coupled with the heightened STCW requirements will likely push the training cycle to five years, and in the process, discourage even more American candidates from the long and arduous trek. Looks like that mariner shortage might get a little more acute. But the prospect of the Coast Guard providing some sort of waiver to this (proposed) rule for U.S. academies is quickly evaporating, especially in the wake of the DHS letter vowing 100 percent compliance with present and future STCW conventions. What’s a Mother to do?

Why MERPAC – and now, SOCP – Matter

A vote on the sea time issue at IMO could take place as early as this January and if past history is any benchmark, the U.S. is not guaranteed that their wishes will be respected, regardless of what they might bring to the table. And, while MERPAC members – now at least temporarily disbanded – would have liked to weigh in on the matter, it is looking like that will not happen.  Instead, an industry-led group will unofficially fill the void. The Shipping Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) has stepped up and announced a meeting in Linthicum, MD on September 8-9 to discuss the full range of subject matter related to the so-called “Manila” STCW amendments.

Because SOCP already addresses and promotes commercial operations through the identification, development, and application of new methods, procedures, and technologies, the Coast Guard has embraced the gesture. According to one DHS employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as many as 12 U.S. Coast Guard personnel will attend the meeting, with the caveat that, “SOCP cannot replace or represent the MERPAC advisory group.”  With SOCP’s overall objective to improve the competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, safety, and environmental responsiveness of U.S. vessel operations, the effort makes perfect sense. And, as MITAGS Chief Glen Paine told Marpro earlier this week, “The most important rulemaking decisions for U.S. mariners since the inception of STCW are happening right now.”  He’s right.

All U.S. based vessel operators and organizations that support vessel operations are eligible to participate in the program and the meeting in September is open to the public, provided those who hope to attend sign up on the SOCP Web site (www.socp.us).

Timing is Everything

The absence of MERPAC’s involvement with the regulatory process of defining mariner rules comes at a particularly bad time. Potentially crippling to the interests of U.S. commercial mariners, MERPAC’s apparent demise also represents a clear step backwards in the Coast Guard’s efforts to regain industry’s trust, which (arguably) had deteriorated to the lowest point in decades following the consolidation of the 17 Regional Exam Centers and a prior track record of indifferent service in the credentialing and marine safety missions. Hence, the failure of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to sign the MERPAC Charter – and apparently others – is particularly puzzling.

Hung out to dry by its DHS parent and the Obama Administration, the nation’s fifth, military, uniformed maritime branch is putting its best foot forward in an effort to get the implementation of the new STCW protocols right. As always, the devil is in the details. Accepting SOCP’s olive branch but careful to remain at a distance lest they anger those higher in the DHS food chain, the Coast Guard and its NMC are navigating a difficult high wire act, without the safety net of its 19-member MERPAC experts, while at the same time trying to placate a mariner community of 200,000+ mariners and the industry infrastructure that depends on them.

You have heard the old saying: “Work isn’t supposed to be fun; that’s why they call it work.” Assuming that to be true, then nowhere is it more applicable this year than at Coast Guard headquarters, especially if your job description involves mariner credentialing or standards. Given the necessary tools and political support, the Coast Guard can accomplish just about anything they set their minds to. They’ve done it countless times in the past, using that tired (but true) “more with less” mantra. That was then; this is now. Unfortunately, and in this case, it is almost as if DHS is setting them up for failure. Three years of concerted maritime industry outreach under the Thad Allen regime is about to come tumbling down. The only question to ask now is: Why? – MarPro.

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