Editor’s note: In March, senior Coast Guard leaders had the opportunity to give remarks on various topics during the Connecticut Maritime Association’s Shipping 2017 conference and expo in Stamford, Connecticut.
For those of you who were unable to attend, Maritime Commons is providing a condensed version of each set of remarks in a four-part series. These remarks are not ‘as delivered’ but provide a condensed version of the panel highlights in the ‘panel-conversational’ style.
In our final post in the series, Rear Admiral Steven Poulin, commander of the First Coast Guard District in Boston, talks about Coast Guard initiatives and programs related to seafarers’ professionalism and well-being. Poulin’s remarks were part of the panel discussion titled, “Do you know who is at the helm of your $50 million ship? The care and feeding of your most important asset.”
The panel was moderated by Doug Stevenson, Director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, Seamen’s Church Institute.
It is an honor to be here today with such esteemed panel members. Thank you to Doug Stevenson for moderating.
For many years, one of our greatest partners in supporting mariners, especially on foreign vessels, has been the Seamen’s Church Institute [SCI]. In particular, we call on them when there is an especially challenging international detention or other extremis situation. We look to the SCI to support mariners caught in the middle of those situations. In addition, the SCI provides training to our apprentice inspectors about SCI’s vital role in the shipping community. The SCI’s contribution to supporting mariners simply cannot be overstated.
A critical issue for us, even more than a decade after the effective date of the MTSA [Maritime Transportation Security Act], is seafarers’ access to shore leave. Notwithstanding visas and immigration restrictions enforced by the CBP [Customs & Border Protection], assuring seafarer access to shore remains a Coast Guard priority and is a specific area where our facility inspectors work very closely with regulated facilities to ensure security plans provide for sufficient seafarer access. To that end, we have been pursuing new regulations to improve seafarer access guarantees and clarify Coast Guard expectations and requirements.
The new regulations, reflected in a proposed rule, require each owner or operator of a facility regulated by the Coast Guard to implement a system that provides seafarers and other individuals with a legitimate purpose access between vessels moored at the facility and the facility gate, in a timely manner and at no cost to the seafarer or other individual.
Generally, transiting through a facility is the only way that a seafarer or other individual can egress to shore beyond the facility to access basic shore-side businesses and services, and meet with family members and other personnel who do not hold a Transportation Worker Identification Credential.
This proposed rule requires that no facility owner or operator deny or make it impractical for seafarers or other individuals to transit through the facility. It also requires the owners or operators to document their access procedures in the facility security plans.
The rule remains under review, but these basic requirements once implemented should promote seafarer access while maintaining effective security.
I’d like to provide one example of how the Coast Guard helps mariners in New England. In October of 2015, the U.S. Marshals seized the NOVA STAR, an international passenger ferry, as collateral for the company’s indebtedness. Coast Guard Sector Northern New England was engaged throughout the seizure process. Initially, at the Marshal’s request, the Coast Guard provided transportation via small boat for the team executing the seizure. A law enforcement boarding team also assisted the effort. Once the ship was in federal custody, the Marshals petitioned the federal court, and the court assigned a substitute custodian for the NOVA STAR.
Once that custodian was assigned, the Coast Guard’s focus shifted to ensuring the continued safety and security of the ship, and the well-being of the 21-person crew. The crew nationalities included Croatia, Philippines, Romania, Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Ukraine, India, and Guyana. Based on the uncertain financial status, we sent marine inspectors on board twice a week to determine the status of manning levels, food, water, fuel, sewage, garbage, and crew payment.
The Coast Guard communicated with the custodian early on to convey that the sector staff would be on board multiple times per week and that we would be talking directly with the crew to understand their treatment and any concerns. While we may not have had direct responsibility for issues like crew payment, our regular presence ensured the custodian provided for all of the crew’s basic needs. It also gave the crew comfort knowing that we were continually involved during a very uncertain time for them. The seizure lasted about 40 days. While we may not be able to provide that same level of attention or engagement in every case, the Coast Guard will always stand ready to do whatever we can to ensure seafarer welfare. The larger point that the NOVA STAR cases reinforces is the solemn obligation of vessel owners and operators to provide for the care and welfare of crews. When owners and operators are either unwilling or unable to meet that obligation, the traditions and moral and legal obligations upon which shipping have long relied, start to unravel.
Regrettably, seafarers are all too often at risk of abandonment, so, I’d like to talk about the newly established Abandoned Seafarers Fund that was initiated by the Coast Guard and codified into to law by Congress, which is equally concerned about the matter. The Fund’s purpose is two-fold. First, it establishes a mechanism for the Coast Guard to support seafarers who are witnesses to maritime-related crimes. Second, it allows the Coast Guard to provide humanitarian relief for seafarers who are abandoned in the United States. The U.S. government often needs the cooperation of seafarers, typically foreign nationals, who are witnesses to criminal offenses. Examples of such crimes would be the deliberate falsification of oil-record books or the use of a bypass pipe to conceal the discharge of oil on the high seas.
On a side note, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the bold crew members who come forward as witnesses and to report illegal activity onboard. The Coast Guard is committed to protecting the “whistleblowers” that show impressive bravery and commitment to do the right thing when others associated with or on the vessel have chosen to do the wrong thing.
Separate from maritime-related crimes, the Fund also allows the Coast Guard to provide relief for seafarers who are otherwise “abandoned.”
The term “abandoned” under the law means an operator or operators’ “unilateral severance of ties with a seafarer” or their “failure to provide necessary support of a seafarer.” In a fifteen-year time frame, the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization estimated that 150,000 seafarers were abandoned worldwide. These seafarers come to American shores as well.
The responsibility to provide for the care and welfare of seafarers who are paroled into the United States for environmental crimes rests with the owner and operator of the vessel, usually through a bond or other surety agreement that conditions release of the vessel on such provisions. In cases where the owner or operator is unwilling or unable to provide for the care and welfare of these seafarers, which neglect itself would be subject to potential steep penalties, the Fund is available. The Fund, in essence, enables the Coast Guard to provide for the upkeep of witnesses of maritime-related crimes and empowers the Coast Guard to provide humanitarian support for seafarers who are abandoned by ship owners. The Coast Guard expects to receive the first deposits this month, subject to further Congressional appropriations.
Next, I’d like to spend some time talking about maritime environmental crimes and summarize recent activity.
In 2016, there were four referrals to the Department of Justice for prosecution. This is down from 15 cases in 2015 and 14 cases in 2014. It is too early to conclude that there is a downward trend in environmental crimes, but it is telling that we continue to have the same types of cases year over year to merit criminal prosecution. We understand and acknowledge that the vast majority of maritime industry are good environmental stewards. Most vessels and shipping companies are serious about environmental compliance and protection. Unfortunately, every year, we still face those who intentionally dump oil at sea, try to cover up the illegal activity by falsifying records, and then further lie and encourage others to lie to the Coast Guard.
Since 2013, more than $83 million in fines has been collected from 18 organizations convicted of environmental crimes, and we anticipate an additional $40 million resulting from a case involving Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., scheduled for sentencing in April.
Cases are the result of effective examinations stemming from multiple detection methods such as oil record book irregularities. Reports to us from crewmembers who see or show evidence of illegal environmental activity are also critical to our enforcement efforts. Referrals for prosecution are the product of outstanding collaboration between Coast Guard inspectors/investigators, Coast Guard legal staffs, Coast Guard Investigative Services, and the Department of Justice.
Environmental crimes are not only unlawful; they have other consequences as well. First, these crimes have a profound effect on our fragile marine ecosystems and marine life, much of which is already under stress. Next, given some of the historic shipboard pollution cases we have prosecuted, continued shipboard environmental crimes perpetuate the perception that maritime industry is not serious about compliance. Lastly, bypassing regulations geared toward preventing intentional oil discharges gives companies who are breaking the rules an unfair advantage over those who are following them.
Now that we have discussed the national scene, I’d like to close my remarks with a wider view of how the U.S. is looking out for the welfare of seafarers on the international level.
In 2013, following a proposal by Cruise Lines International Association, the IMO Legal Committee, supported by the U.S., developed guidelines intended to protect internationally those onboard ships, including crew, who were the victims of crime. In addition to providing practical steps for preserving evidence, the voluntary guidelines, which the IMO General Assembly adopted in December of 2013, emphasize that all persons affected by an alleged crime deserve pastoral and medical care and should be treated compassionately and respectfully.
Thank you for your attention and for the opportunity to present to you today.
If you’d like to continue this discussion on Maritime Commons, leave questions or thoughts in the comments below or tweet them to @maritimecommons using #USCGCMA2017
In addition to this post, please be sure to view the entire series from the Connecticut Shipping Association Shipping 2017 conference.
This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.