Timing is Everything

Sad news of seafarer’s death in yet another Somali ransom case could accomplish what to date has not been possible: drive the passage of U.S. legislation aimed at helping mariners end the scourge of piracy.

I don’t think that anyone would use the words “good timing” to describe the almost simultaneous disclosures that still another piece of U.S. legislation (Click HERE to read proposed language of HR 2984) had been pushed forward – this time intended to obviate mariner liability in a piracy situation – and the incredibly sad news of one dead and another wounded aboard a ship freed by pirates off the coast of Somalia. On the other hand, the stark departure of the so-called “pirates” from their oft-described “business plan” (of being solely interested in money rather than inciting violence against ships crews) has changed the metrics of this deadly game once again. The tragic event involving Ukrainian sailors could well be the seminal event that leads to the virtual end of the problem in this region.

As Dutch Marines this week boarded the just-released M/V Marathon to reportedly discover one seafarer dead from a gunshot wound and another seriously injured with a bullet wound, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) was introducing legislation to provide immunity to U.S. merchant mariners who wound or kill pirates while responding to a pirate attack. The two events, each occurring half way around the world from the other, might just provide the combined catalyst to an ultimate solution to the scourge of ongoing lawless Somalian attacks on commercial shipping in the region. At least we can only hope that this will be the case.

The details of the M/V Marathon hijacking have yet to fully disclosed, but I can’t help but think that the feel-good story of the Maersk Alabama might very well have turned out exactly the same way. And, while I continue to be an opponent of providing arms to merchant seamen, I have along the way become a staunch supporter of riding gangs of professional security personnel – from whatever source. I’m also in favor of anything that might give those who perpetrate these high seas crimes pause as they consider their next target. Lobiondo’s proposed measure would go a long way to doing just that. Beyond this, it is way past time to let these financial terrorists know that the proverbial arm tied behind the backs of mariners everywhere has just been released.

In Washington, the piracy problem has so far produced enough hot air to melt the polar caps, but little else. The back room discussions reportedly underway are, of course, moving at a snail’s pace consistent with everything else that transpires there. In addition to Labiondo’s United States Mariner and Vessel Protection Act (H.R. 2984), there are several other efforts in play to legalize the deployment of arms aboard U.S. merchant assets in harm’s way. H.R. 2984, if enacted, will direct the Coast Guard to establish standards for when a merchant mariner on a U.S.-flag vessel can use force against an aggressor. In theory, mariners using force within these parameters, and the owner, operator or master of these vessels would be exempt from liability in U.S. courts as a result of those actions. It is a start.

Held since May 7th, the 2,575 metric tonne Marathon, until this week’s gruesome discovery, had been regarded as a typical seizure, ending some six weeks later in the payment of a reported $1.3 million in ransom money. In fact, it was anything but. And, if the Maersk Alabama was truly a “game-changer” as so many pundits like to characterize that incident, than this one will be a world changer for Somali pirates. The death of a sailor and serious injuries to another were not the first to occur in this crime spree, but if the world’s collective maritime authorities have the stomach to do the right thing, they may be the last.

Two weeks ago, we alluded to the many maritime items (click HERE) on the Washington legislative agenda this summer. At this point, I can’t think of anything – including health care reform and/or the selection of the next Supreme Court justice – that would qualify as more important than the safety of U.S. and international seamen. And, Heaven forbid that any more harm comes to any more mariners as a result of a piracy incident in the Gulf of Aden or anywhere else for that matter. I also would not want to be on the side of a “nay” vote or stalling tactics on any proposed measure that improves any aspect seafarer defense in the wake of additional violence. Now, that would be decidedly bad timing for any American lawmaker. – MarEx

NOTE: As MarEx went on line for this edition, it has been reported that the Cummings Amendment to the DOD Authorization bill was supported by Chairman Skelton and it is expected to be adopted by the House of Representatives today. This amendment requires DOD to assign ESTs to U.S.-flag vessels carrying government impelled cargoes in high-risk piracy threat areas. If the bill with amendment passes as expected, this will be a major step forward for protection of U.S. merchant ships.

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>