Ferry Business - Spring/Summer 2019

International Cruise & Ferry Review Ferry Business 112 hould foreign ships be allowed to sail in your local pond? And, perhaps even more to the point, should cheap, foreign seamen be permitted to crew them? These are questions that never seem to go away, periodically arising whenever a ferry operator attempts to reduce costs or steal a march over the rivals. There are some places where the answer to these questions is a foregone conclusion, such as the US, where short shrift will be given to anyone who challenges the sovereignty of the Jones Act that governs maritime commerce. It is suggested that the zeal with which the Jones Act is supported amounts to self-harm because it prevents operators from chartering foreign-built ferries that could be the key to both a prosperous coastwise trade and more employment opportunities for American mariners. However, US shipbuilders remain a force to be reckoned with and whoever rules the roost in the White House will resolutely seek to reinforce the ban on any imported ships. Late last year there was great jubilation in the international trade union movement when the Norwegian Government refused to permit Color Line to operate its ferries under the Norwegian International Register, which would have enabled it to exchange Norwegian crews for foreign seafarers. Unions pointed out that as the ships operated in domestic waters and the company was profitable, there was no justification for such a cost-saving strategy. In doing so, they saved around 700 Norwegian jobs. Meanwhile, the International Transport Workers Federation seized the opportunity to publish a study that appeared to show that there still are many places around the world where cabotage – protecting domestic shipping and those who work in it – remains a fact of local maritime life. Issues of protection are never as simple as those who would deny its advantages, or those supporting the very opposite, might say. Labour unions have frequently asserted that European waters could be effectively fenced off from foreign shipping, or that domestic jobs could be protected and that there is no justification for the sort of liberal attitudes that prevail, for instance, on the UK coast. But it is important to note that within the European ‘pond’ itself, there are countries that operate ferries according to very different cost structures. For example, the cost differences between ferries operated from the three Baltic states have made life in the shipping industries exceedingly difficult for their high-cost Scandinavian neighbours. It is also important to realise that while the protection of a domestic ferry trade might appear eminently justified, it is rare to find ferries operating in regions where passengers do not have access to alternative transportation methods. There will be a limit to the elasticity of any ferry operator’s cost structure, so companies must constantly be alert to the risk of pricing their customers out of using ferry travel. Although all European ferry companies are facing steep costs related to environmental demands for more sustainable operations, they are limited in their ability to pass these on to their customers because they may elect to return to the long-haul road alternatives. This, of course, carries a nasty social cost in terms of road congestion, pollution and other undesirable consequences. The users of ships may well publicly voice their support for the most environmentally sound forms of transport, but when the chips are down and the costs of ferry transport go up, such good resolutions may well be forgotten. The employment benefits of cabotage tend to be most regularly cited by those who wish to The fight over the ferry berth Michael Grey weighs up the pros and cons of cabotage in oceans around the world Michael Grey Michael Grey is a master mariner turned maritime journalist and has edited both Fairplay and Lloyd’s List over his 60-year career. ”Should foreign ships be allowed to sail in your local pond?” COMMENTARY