Posted by: towmasters | July 15, 2009

Congress Turns Up The Heat: Mariner Licensing Delays Are In The Spotlight

Last Thursday, July 9th, the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation held a hearing on the National Maritime Center and Mariner Credentials. Here is the Summary Of Subject Matter , and the opening statements from Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (of which the subcommittee is a subordinate part), and Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the subcommittee. The areas covered were the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center, merchant mariner credentials, mariner medical standards, and the credential processing backlog. Also well worth reading are the various written witness testimonies listed below.

Finally, if you have the time, by all means please view the video of the hearing. There’s close to ten minutes of dead-air time at the beginning that should have been edited out but, nonetheless, it’s very enlightening to see the inner workings of our government…..especially Rep. Cummings’ opening statement that declared that the current state of affairs with licensing is “unacceptable.” After viewing the whole hearing, as well as the September 2008 hearing, I came away with a strong impression that Congress is deeply involved with and committed to overseeing the licensing system being fixed as well as the towing vessel inspection program being crafted and implemented properly. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that was promised for late Spring never materialized, and Rep. Cummings clearly expressed his frustration with this fact. Apparently it is still being reviewed internally and will presumably be published and opened to public comment sometime before the end of this calendar year. For the Coast Guard’s part the current delays in the issuance of MMC’s was also called “unacceptable” by RADM Cook, the brand new Office of Prevention Policy director, and he said that fixing this problem was his “top priority.”

We wish him well in this endeavor, but history has taught us to remain skeptical that the Coast Guard Marine Safety branch is institutionally and, more importantly, culturally capable of and ready to make the kinds of changes internally that are needed to permanently fix licensing (credentialing) generally and to get the towing vessel inspection program right. To begin with the Coast Guard would have already had to stop viewing merchant mariners (especially the majority of us who are limited-tonnage mariners) as, at best, inconvenient pests or, at worst, an outright enemy. Although there have been some tentative efforts at outreach to mariners from the Coast Guard, we have no way of knowing if this change of heart has truly occurred. Then they would have to give equal weight, without  begrudging it, to the opinions and reasonable suggestions coming from mariners. Historically, we haven’t been paid much heed, regardless of the merits of our arguments. Having previously allowed effective control of the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) to fall to the American Waterways Operators, while completely ignoring the warnings of mariners and several CG-certified towing vessel designated examiners, the result has been such stellar marine safety “improvements” as the 30-Day Wonder. This was not their finest moment.

The testimony given by RADM Watson during the September ’08 hearing indicated that the Coast Guard hopes to go quickly from the NPRM to the Final Rule. He claimed that “everyone”, including maritime labor (us), was deeply involved in providing input for the new inspection regulations. This will result, the CG hopes, in no one seriously objecting to them and their expeditious finalization. If this is anything more than wishful thinking on the CG’s part then it should be self evident as soon as the actual NPRM is published. So we’ll just have to wait and see if the Coast Guard is truly ready to do this right or if we’re just seeing more of the old rope-a-dope until Congress’ attention is diverted by more pressing matters. Time will tell.


  1. Just watched the entire video, I thought it was worthwhile. Cummings comments were interesting as were the others. Bottom line is why set up a system where qualified mariner who wants to go to work can’t.

  2. The outcome of this hearing was refreshing news after a recent local meeting we had with representatives from Congressman Delahunt, Senator Kerry and Senator Kennedy’s offices. CAPT Stalfort (Commander NMC) and RADM Gabel (Commander D1) were there and they outlined what the NMC is doing to fix the licensing process. Their presentation was was enlightening and we had the chance to voice our desire for an license extension for mariners. Apparently they were listening!

    We were there representing C-PORT which is the industry associate for commercial assistance towing (separate from the towing industry) and were pleased with the opportunity to provide feedback to the CG.

    Capt. Ethan Maass
    Secretary, C-PORT
    Conference for Professional Operators of Response Towing

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