American Maritime Unions Protest Foreign-Crewed U.S. Registry Proposal

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Published Oct 23, 2023 10:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

Every major American maritime union has signed a letter of protest in response to a think-tank proposal for a parallel, foreign-crewed "second U.S. registry," which would augment the United States' deep sea merchant fleet.

The proposal was released earlier this month by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington. In broad strokes, the Hudson plan seeks to expand the existing U.S.-flag fleet from 85 ships today to 250 ships by 2030 - and to augment the U.S.-crewed fleet with another 250 ships in a "limited, top-quality second American ship registry." This second registry would have most of the same regulatory standards, except for one: foreign crewmembers could work aboard. 

"The US maritime industry (like many other industries) is confronting serious workforce development challenges - mariner shortages - even with existing growth in domestic trade," wrote the authors. "The second-registry fleet would not be a substitute for the primary US flag fleet, which loyal American citizens would crew and which is essential to meeting core military sealift functions."

In the long term, the proposal sees a policy-driven expansion of the first, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-flag fleet attracting more Americans to the mariner workforce. In the meantime, the foreign-crewed second registry "would strengthen American security interests in the domains beyond core sealift functions," and at "a minimal cost to taxpayers."

The second fleet would come with limits. It would not be for sealift; it could not carry U.S. government cargo; only the firms that participate in the first U.S. flag could join the second fleet; and the second fleet's size would remain capped at 250 ships, triple the current size of the U.S.-flag fleet.

The Hudson plan was authored by the director of Hudson's American Maritime Security Initiative, who joined Hudson last year after a long career as senior vice president of a prominent U.S.-flag shipowner. The past and present sponsors of the maritime department at Hudson include four top American shipping firms.

In a joint statement released last week, all of America's major maritime unions condemned the Hudson second-fleet plan, calling it "little more than a flag of convenience" aimed at "outsourcing of American maritime jobs."

"It is irresponsible to divert U.S. taxpayer dollars to support . . . U.S.-flag vessels that do not provide the base of employment necessary to increase and support the U.S citizen mariner base," wrote the unions. "To do so is at best a wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars and at worst, a dangerous disregard of America’s national security requirements."

The unions urged the Biden administration and Congress to reject the plan, and to invest in the existing U.S.-flag fleet and U.S. maritime workforce instead. Signatories included the AFL-CIO, SUP, SIU, AMO, MM&P and MEBA.

The U.S. government played a role in setting up a second American-run shipping registry once before. In 1948, following technical consultation with the U.S. State Department, a former U.S. secretary of state helped to establish an American-operated open registry in a West African nation. It offered U.S. shipowners a cost-efficient alterative, and it continues to thrive today.