Maritime law is a relatively niche and often misunderstood area of law; indeed, even attorneys may have trouble defining the Jones Act or what it addresses, absent some prior experience in this field. However, for those who work in the marine industry, the protections offered by the Jones Act (most notably its provisions for payment to workers injured on the job) are often deemed crucial for maintaining health and safety at sea.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently posted for comment its proposal to revoke previous letter rulings that it deems inconsistent with the enforcement of coast and maritime laws, including several rulings carving out exceptions to the Jones Act. Some of the changes being proposed, if implemented, may have immediate ripple effects throughout the maritime industry.

Houston Industrial panorama and Port of Houston, Texas LCCN2011630961

What changes are being proposed to maritime law?

The CBP’s proposal is designed to restore certain parts of the Jones Act that were previously superseded or overruled by administrative letters of regulation. One of the primary rulings at issue is the one that has permitted foreign offshore construction vessels to operate in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere on the U.S.-controlled Outer Continental Shelf.

Previously, the Jones Act had prohibited this type of foreign operation absent express permission; under this Act, only a U.S.-built vessel owned and crewed by U.S. citizens was able to transport cargo between two domestic ports. However, lobbying by “big oil” groups, many of whom operate ships built elsewhere and crewed by non-U.S. citizens, eventually led to a regulatory ruling that permitted foreign ships to operate in the Gulf and elsewhere with prior permission.

This presented some problems when legal issues cropped up; foreign ships didn’t always consider themselves subject to other U.S. laws regarding pollution, workers’ compensation, and worker safety, but enforcement authorities were reluctant to act without express standing.

The CBP’s current proposal would roll back these changes, restoring the original Jones Act language restricting maritime operation to U.S.-built and owned ships, all of which are subject to all other relevant U.S. maritime laws.

If these changes are adopted, what will this mean for the maritime industry? 

One immediate change may come in the form of increased national security. Many have pointed out the potential risk of allowing multiple foreign ships near the ports and passageways U.S. ships will need to access in the event of an attack or sudden declaration of war; even if these foreign ships aren’t openly hostile to U.S. interests and don’t attempt attack or sabotage, they may consume valuable resources and take up valuable space needed to protect the U.S. coasts and its citizens.

Restoration of the Jones Act protections can also help border patrol agents better enforce U.S. immigration laws, as it will be much tougher for foreign-born individuals to sneak into the U.S.; under current law, all these individuals need to do is to find employment on a foreign-flagged ship and disembark at any U.S. port to gain entry to the country, sometimes bringing illegal contraband with them.

At World Trade Distribution, Inc. we take national security very seriously, and work closely with United States government agencies at our Customs Examination Station to ensure imported freight is handled safely and efficiently, while complying with all national security regulations.  We also boast the most competitive rates in the industry, with a long reputation of being in good standing with all U.S. government agencies.  Contact us today to get a quote on any customs examinations and importing needs.

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