A new U.S. Virgin Islands open ship registry was officially launched Tuesday during an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Maritime unions have issued a joint statement condemning the idea.
The ship registry is part of a “Revitalization Plan for US Maritime Trade, Commerce and Strategic Competition,” developed by the Northeast Maritime Institute’s Center for Ocean Policy and Economics (COPE) and “advised by an array of leading thinkers in the maritime industry.” Northeast Maritime College (NMI) is a private maritime college based in Massachusetts.
The plan has been billed by its designers as “the most relevant maritime initiative in past 75 years,” promising to “support and assist in resolving America’s supply chain crisis, ensure maritime sovereignty and security, and revitalize maritime commerce,” according to a press release announcing the launch.
During Tuesday’s event, the Honorable Albert Bryan, Jr., Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and NMI President Eric R. Dawicki participated in a signing ceremony launching the registry.
According to a recently published white paper by NMI’s COPE describing the plan, an autonomous open international flag based in the U.S. Virgin Islands would provide “responsible and transparent oversight to a commercial fleet of foreign and domestically owned and operated vessels” and “allow the U.S. to command a diverse commercial fleet and reform the practices of international flags.”
“A new secondary U.S. Flag dedicated to international trade and commerce would provide a significant increase to U.S. tonnage; increase U.S. maritime labor capacity; uphold higher international standards for the safety of seafarers; allow for greater oversight of global trade and commerce; facilitate green seas initiatives, and incentivize U.S. financing, investment, and ownership in domestic maritime initiatives,” the paper explains.
Through the Virgin Islands’ formal relationship with the United States, USVI-flagged commercial ships could help bolster the nation’s military sealift capability, while also benefit from the same protections provided to the U.S.-flag commercial fleet by relevant U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Special Forces, “especially in global hotspots,” the paper says.
“The creation of an open, international U.S. Virgin Islands registry will expand the number of U.S.-flagged vessels traversing the world’s oceans. Those ships that fly the USVI flag will carry the same level of protection as their U.S.-flagged counterparts as they travel around-the-world,” COPE writes.
Since the USVI is exempt from the Jones Act, COPE believes basing a new maritime registry there “allows the U.S. maintain the regulatory framework of the Jones Act, a ‘Separate, Yet One,’ policy, and at the same time increase U.S. international competitiveness and influence in the global maritime community,” according to the paper.
Additional action items listed the revitalization plan include the development of a short sea transshipment hub in the Caribbean to help alleviate congestion, building “public/private/international partnerships to address strategic maritime issues, increase transparency and enforce legal and ethical standards,” and establishing and implementing a green shipping strategy, including decarbonization of the U.S.-flagged fleet. There are also plans for a Maritime Venture Capital Fund and “state of the art” education and training in the U.S. and abroad to help modernize the maritime workforce.
Maritime unions condemn the registry
Responding to the registry launch, a number of U.S.-based labor organizations (including the American Maritime Organization, Sailors Union of the Pacific, Seafarers’ International Union, International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, and Marine Firemen’s Union) have issued a statement strongly condemning the idea and calling on the Department of Defense, the Maritime Administration, the Biden Administration and the Congress to “reject any suggestion that United States Virgin Islands-flag vessels be treated as if they are U.S.-flag and U.S.-crewed vessels for any purpose or for any program.”
“On behalf of the licensed and unlicensed American merchant mariners who have proudly and without fail served our country since its founding, we oppose in the strongest possible terms the creation of an open registry in the Virgin Islands, a territory of the United States,” the labor organizations said in the joint statement.
The labor unions contend that a U.S. open registry will provide no more benefit to the U.S. than any other flag of convenience does to its flag nation, and called the move an “affront to American mariners.”
“The proposed Virgin Islands flag of convenience open registry will not benefit the United States nor America’s maritime industry, any more than any other second or open registry benefits a national flag country. In fact, the establishment and growth of second registries by other industrialized nations has done little more than decimate their national flag fleets to the point that they are no longer able to provide the requisite military security and logistical support to their flag nations,” according to the labor organizations.
“At its core, this proposal, allowing for the operation of vessels with foreign mariners under a United States open registry, is an affront to the American mariners who have always put themselves in harm’s way whenever called upon by our nation,” they say.