Homeland security on Great Lakes starts with Jones Act, according to LCA

The Jones Act’s requirement that cargo moving between U.S. ports be carried in vessels that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-built and U.S.-crewed is the Great Lakes region’s “best line of maritime homeland security defense,” said James H.I. Weakley, President of Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA), during a recent Congressional hearing. “If you ask me what the single most important thing you [Congress] can do to encourage maritime homeland security, I would say support the Jones Act.”

Weakley, testifying before a joint hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee and the House Homeland Security Committee’s Maritime and Border Protection Subcommittee, explained that vessels owned and crewed by Americans under the Jones Act have a very different risk profile than foreign vessels.

“For example, our Jones Act mariners have all gone through extensive checks in order to receive their licenses, credentials and Transportation Worker Identification Credential cards. Many have been trained at our maritime schools and universities. They live here. They work here. In fact, many of these mariners and companies are full partners with our American law enforcement agencies through a series of programs and partnerships that encourage American seafarers to report suspicious activities.”

While the exact security measures employed on Jones Act lakers are considered sensitive security information under U.S. regulations, Weakley noted crews practice access control, perimeter expansion, personnel screening, vessel security sweeps and inspection of cargo and ship stores.

“We not only adjust our security profile based on the prescribed threat level but also on the vessel operations and operational area,” he said. “For example, if the vessel is moored at a facility that is not required to comply with facility security regulations, undergoing winter maintenance, in long-term storage or operating in restricted waters, we may also adjust our security profile.”

Several LCA members are cooperating with a vendor on a project that could benefit both law enforcement and search and rescue responders.

“The program records vessel radar pictures with automatic identification system (AIS) data and allows shore-based operators to remotely access the information,” Weakley said. “We believe the system, if proven successful, could be used to identify patterns of suspicious activity. Radars can monitor ‘uncooperative’ aircraft and vessels that are not required to or choose not to transmit AIS data. Having the ability to look at a series of historical radar screens in an area can reveal suspicious trends and having real-time access to remotely look at a radar picture from a vessel underway vastly expands the ability of shore-based monitoring systems.”

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Eyes on the Water program is another way Great Lakes Jones Act mariners help keep the waterway safe.

“In the wake of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York, the Coast Guard has formalized a program that encourages professional mariners to report suspicious activity on the water,” Weakley said. “Through its Eyes on the Water program, the Coast Guard recognized that the more eyes looking, the better, and who could be more qualified to recognize that something is afoul than the professionals who routinely sail the trade routes? All of our members participate and report unusual or suspicious activity (e.g., when an unmanned aerial vehicle buzzes a vessel or a critical piece of infrastructure). These are low-cost, common sense programs that make our homeland more secure, and we are proud to be full partners.”

Other respected voices support the Jones Act and its role in homeland security. Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, a former Washington State attorney general and member of the 911 Commission, recently wrote that “helping to plug a porous border is a benefit of the Jones Act that is far too often overlooked.” 

Dr. Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a prominent think tank, has prepared two studies recently, including one titled Venerable Jones Act Provides an Important Barrier to Terrorist Infiltration of the Homeland. He said, “Since 911, the Jones Act has taken on new significance in a way no one … could have imagined. It now plays an important role in securing the homeland from the threat of international terrorism.”

Goure also stressed that “the task of securing U.S. seaports and foreign cargoes is daunting by itself. It makes no sense to add to the burden facing domestic security agencies by allowing foreign-owned ships operated by foreign crews to move freely throughout America’s inland lakes, rivers and waterways. The requirement that all the officers and fully 75 percent of the crews of vessels engaged in cabotage be U.S. citizens goes a long way to reducing the risk that terrorists could get onboard or execute an attack on a U.S. target. In effect, there is a system of self-policing that reduces the requirement for law enforcement and homeland security organizations to expend time and effort to ensure that these vessels and crews are safe to traverse U.S. waters. Were the Jones Act not in existence, the Department of Homeland Security would be confronted by the difficult and very costly requirement of monitoring, regulating and overseeing foreign-controlled, foreign-crewed vessels in coastal and internal U.S. waters.”

Although the Jones Act was passed by Congress in 1920, the United States has reserved its domestic waterborne commerce to vessels owned, built and crewed by Americans since 1817. The level playing field the law ensures has allowed the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet to evolve into the world’s largest assemblage of self-unloading vessels. In fact, the self-unloading vessel was invented to serve the Great Lakes dry bulk trades. So efficient are these vessels that the largest can discharge 70,000 tons of cargo in 10-12 hours without any assistance from shoreside personnel or equipment.

The requirement that Jones Act vessels be crewed with mariners licensed and credentialed by the U.S. Coast Guard means they are held to the world’s highest standards.

Maritime Editorial