Those citizens with concerns about the prospect of huge bulk carriers coming to Cherry Point to haul coal to China will want to be aware of these facts [compiled by a retired Chief Engineer for the United States Merchant Marine]
Shipping in the Salish Sea: Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait waters are governed by the US and Canada based on their borders. Each country controls the waters within its own borders. One owns the inbound lane and the other the outbound lane.
All ships navigating beyond Port Angeles and Victoria, in U.S. or Canadian waters (even ones with English-speaking captains) must use advisors known as pilots who are familiar with the local waters. Ships headed to Vancouver pick up pilots at Victoria. Ships bound for Seattle, Tacoma, Cherry Point, and Anacortes take on pilots at Port Angeles. If a ship must go from Vancouver to Tacoma, they must drop off the Canadian pilot, and then pick up the US pilot.
Third world country ships often have captains who may not speak or understand English well though an English speaking person is required.
Ship Registry: The flag a ship sails under is indicative of its crew, the ship itself, its safety and, often, its environmental record.
Ships are designed and built as per the regulations of the country where the ship is flagged. A ship that engages in commerce between two American ports must be built in America (Intra-American Trade Zones Act). Just as our car regulations are some of the most stringent in the world in terms of safety requirements and quality, so it goes for ships.
There are 4 levels of ships, more or less:
Level 1: Developed Countries - US, Norwegian, German, etc. have the highest standards for construction, safety, pollution, staffing and fuel.
Level 2: Midrange – Greek, Italian, and Russian ships are generally not as well built or run as Level 1 ships, nor are they generally as reliable as Level 1 ships.
Level 3: Developing, impoverished and Third World countries - India, Pakistan, and all African countries except South Africa often use retired ships from other countries. These ships often no longer meet regulations of level 1 and level 2 countries.
Level 4: Flag of Convenience countries – Their ships are usually cheap to register and have little if any regulations. They are known for numerous illegal activities. In Panama, for instance, it may only cost $500 to register a ship, no questions asked.
A ship may be registered in the Cayman Islands, have a Pakistani crew, Indian officers, Italian captain and no common language.
Companies register in these countries to avoid ship building and maintenance regulations, labor
unions, safety regulations and taxes, and lastly, to maintain anonymity. Currently the US Coast Guard has blacklisted and targets 14 countries that are considered flags of convenience. A very high percentage of the cargo ships and tankers in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Haro and Rosario Straits, appear to be ships registered under flags of convenience.
These countries have neither signed MARPOL (international environmental agreements) nor agreements accepting liability should there be an oil spill, though both are requirements under international maritime law. In most cases, you cannot even determine who owns the vessel as that information is buried beneath many layers of corporate agreements. There are well known legal cases where investigators have spent over 10 years simply trying to uncover the true ownership of a vessel after a major grounding, ship break-up, or large oil spill.
Flag of convenience ships are also notorious for hauling drugs and other contraband, human smuggling, sex trafficking and terrorism. They consistently break trade embargos like the current one against Iran.
The oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, of the massive Gulf oil spill of April, 2010, operated under a flag of convenience (Marshall Islands).
Mayday: Captains do not issue mayday calls except as a last resort. It is a matter of pride, ego and possibly loss of their jobs. In narrow straits like Haro, Rosario and even Juan de Fuca there is precious little time to recover from a serious event. The nearest designated rescue tug is stationed in Neah Bay.
Many vessels under flags of convenience face few safety or maintenance standards and could be operating on the brink of disaster. If the generators or steering systems fail on a ship, there is no way to maneuver or stop them and the water is too deep to drop anchor in the shipping lanes of the Salish Sea. Strong currents are a constant in northern Puget Sound, often accompanied by strong winds that combine to move a disabled ship many miles before help can arrive.
Tugs rarely exceed 14 knots. The tug kept on call for oil spills is kept in Neah Bay. There is a good chance that the Neah Bay tug, as well as most other tugs, could not get to Haro, Rosario or Juan de Fuca in time even if a mayday is issued expeditiously. Washington refers to a “ships of convenience” approach, meaning that they would hope for nearby ships to render assistance in an emergency. This is not feasible in the case of a large ship like a tanker or cargo vessel and presumably any tug in the area is already tending a vessel. Most ships and boats do not have the necessary ropes, manpower, or crew training for this to be effective. It is also far too dangerous for these huge, lumbering craft to even come near each other, as they cannot be maneuvered nimbly in close quarters. It can take 2 to 3 miles simply to stop a large ship. In addition, managing one typically requires more than a single tugboat. There are also many different types of tugs. They are not all capable of rescuing a ship that is dead in the water. Those that can must carry 4 inch diameter ropes, weighing thousands of pounds, and specially trained crews.
Labor: Licensing of merchant mariners varies by country just as ship-building does. In the U.S., you
start at an entry level or graduate from a state or federal maritime academy as an entry level officer, and work your way up to chief engineer or captain. It takes years to move up the ladder, even after proper maritime schooling. Some countries, however, require little training. If a captain, mate, or engineer loses his license, he can simply buy a new license in a flag of convenience country for as little as $200, or less, and be right back in business.
Just as the Washington State ferry system is currently cutting jobs due to budget cuts, so has the shipping industry. Some ships, longer than 3 football fields, bigger than an aircraft carrier, are operating with the absolute minimum number of crew, often as small as 14. There is no back-up staff should someone fall ill, become injured, or simply not pay attention, so disaster can strike quickly.
The Fuel: Ships run on “heavy fuel oil.” When crude oil is refined, they take out the light products, like naphtha and gasoline, then kerosene and diesel fuel and what is left are lubricating oils, heavy fuel oil, asphalt and other residues. Every large ship, be it a tanker, log ship, passenger ship, or cargo ship, runs on heavy fuel oil, which has a consistency similar to refrigerated honey. Ships heat the heavy fuel oil with steam coils to make it flow. Average size vessels carry several hundred thousand gallons of heavy oil fuel. That is enough to foul every single island in the San Juan/Gulf Island Archipelago.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) have worked diligently since the 1990’s toward pollution reduction, development of cleaner engines and fuel use, as well as improved management of ballast water. These efforts may never trickle down to ships registered under flags of convenience as their ships and machinery is much older and their goal is generally to minimize such investments. A very high percentage of our vessel traffic in the Salish Sea are ships registered under flags of convenience.
Recommendations: A large tugboat with crew needs to be stationed at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island twelve months a year. This tugboat must be capable of holding any coal ship off the rocks during inclement weather until sufficient help arrives.
We need to establish speed limits. Some vessels exceed 20 knots while traveling in the Salish Sea. High speeds makes them all the more difficult to stop. Plus it has been established that the faster the ships go, the louder they are, which impacts our resident orcas and other marine mammals.
We need to require that tugs accompany all ships traveling in the Salish Sea.
We need to require ship inspections for ships registered under flags of convenience and/or deny them access altogether. Earlier this year a dual hulled tanker entered the Salish Sea with a cracked outer hull. Tugs are currently required in U.S. waters of the Salish Sea only for tankers traveling to BP’s Cherry Point; no tug escorts are required in Haro Strait for US or Canadian waters.