All this talk about the Jones Act and Puerto Rico

This isn’t aviation geek, miles and points, or even airline travel related. I’m a merchant mariner, holder of a 100 ton Captain’s license for inland and near coastal waters, bestowed on me from the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and so I felt the need to weigh in on this talk of the Jones Act. I don’t really have many opinions on whether the Jones Act waiver should or should not continue, but rather, I feel strongly that folks should know what the Jones Act is.

About the Jones Act

The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is US law, introduced by Senator Wesley Jones (thus the name). Some key provisions of the Jones Act are:

  • Ships that travel between two points in the US must be US Built or largely impacted–my words–by US Shipyards. 
  • Ships that travel between two points in the US must be crewed by at least 75% US seamen
  • Ships that travel between two points in the US must be owned and registered by US companies, and US Flagged.

There are other provisions of the Jones Act. Some that matter more or less to folks. One that impacted me personally, is that a seaman injured onboard a ship is provided maintenance and cure. That is different than workman’s comp. For me, it meant that when I broke my foot while I was running a passenger ferry from Bay Shore, NY to Fire Island, NY, the company covered all of my medical expenses as well as my regular bills–which at the time were just cell phone and car insurance. This sort of thing is important, because sometimes seaman while living on a vessel, have families at home to provide for.

Why the Jones Act made sense to be waived for Puerto Rico

The simple fact of the matter is, that when an island or any region is at risk, you want to get the most aid there, as soon as you can. This is why it made sense for the US Government to waive the Jones Act. The US suspended the act for 10 days. Was 10 days enough? It isn’t clear to me. But lets consider what this suspension meant. This suspension meant that foreign flagged ships, with foreign crew, and foreign ownership, could carry aid supplies between the Continental United States and Puerto Rico.

Lets consider for a moment what that implies. First of all, the implication is that US flagged carriers and crew might be otherwise impacted by Hurricane Irma, and not able to do their jobs in manning ships to get aid supplies to Puerto Rico. 10 days seems reasonable to try to get folks in Florida back to work. 

Why the Jones Act doesn’t matter for the United States Virgin Islands

The Jones Act is important, however, it doesn’t really impact the US Virgin Islands, because they are exempt from the act, as an addition to section 21, which was enacted in 1936, as the addition stated: “And provided further, that the coastwise laws of the United States shall not extend to the Virgin Islands of the United States…” So what does this mean? This means that non-US ships can transport aid to the US Virgin Islands (which are terribly in need, by the way), from the US, without the necessary Jones Act requirements.

Wrapping Up

Overall, the point of my post is an attempt to educate folks on what the Jones Act is and is not. I realize that the Jones Act is being politicized, and that is unfortunate. As a merchant mariner, I feel like we need to acknowledge the value of the act. Really, we should welcome help for Puerto Rico from any nation, and I think largely we–the US–are, but if the Jones Act waiver has ended, I think this means that we, US Mariners, need to be pushing harder to be able to transport the necessary aid from US ports directly to Puerto Rico. If US Shipping companies and Mariners are not available, then perhaps the Jones Act waiver should be expended. But I suspect–with no inside knowledge–that US mariners are ready to get back to work. So hopefully they have already gotten back to work, so we can get our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico back up to speed. I am further hopeful, that US Flagged ships and really any other flagged ships are helping the US and British Virgin Islands to rebuild. These hurricanes were fierce. We need to band together to recuperate.

10 thoughts on “All this talk about the Jones Act and Puerto Rico

    • @Ken – I was really hoping to just provide facts about the Jones act. Interestingly enough, nothing prevents foreign flagged ships from transporting relief supplies from a second country, only between US and US.

      • “nothing prevents foreign flagged ships from transporting relief supplies from a second country, only between US and US.”

        It means though that you need to ship only those goods intended for Puerto Rico, rather than including those items as part of a larger shipment.

        This is why so many foreign goods go to the US West Coast and then on to Hawaii rather than ships stopping in Hawaii, dropping off Hawaii-bound goods, and continuing to the US.

  1. There were 2,926 large US ships in 1960. That’s down to 169 today, only 91 of which are Jones-Act eligible. (And these certified ships may not even be American owned.) So the Jones Act didn’t even protect the US shipping industry, and it means there’s little capacity between US ports.

    Wages are 5x higher on these US ships than foreign flagged ones, so the transport cost using Jones Act eligible ships is much higher. You may want to provide good wages, but driving up food prices in Hawaii the cost of emergency supplies in Puerto Rico may not be the best way to do it.

    By the way the cost to produce new ships here is 5x higher than the average cost of a new ship, which is why over 90% of new ships are coming out of East Asia.

    • @Gary – While I can see your argument against the Jones Act in general, I don’t see how an extended waiver helps much. Fair that its more expensive to build and staff ships, but if there’s no value to the act then do away with it, don’t waive it for some temporary time.

  2. Having worked for cruise lines for over 30 years I was always confronted with the Jones Act questions. You also need to mention that a vessel must vessel a “distant port” in order to go roundtrip or an open jaw from the US. So, you can sail between NYC and MIA and go to PHL, BWI, DCA, CHS and SAV as long as you also visit Bermuda which is classified as a “distant port”
    You can NOT sail from NYC-MIA without violating the Jones Act unless you visit a “distant port”.

    The regulations are archaic and the original purpose is no longer relevant IMHO.

  3. Trevor, appreciate you posting it because I have some serious questions about the Jones Act and you seem to understand it enough to answer.

    Aren’t goods on PR kept extremely expensive because the only way for shit to get there from a different country is to send it to Miami, unload it, move in to an American vessel, than (sometimes backtrack) to PR? What sense does that make? Why would we cause economic harm to our territory by severely limiting the routes by which it can trade?

  4. Only 91 Jones Act eligible ships? If that’s the case, time for the Jones Act to go.

    Oh, and the waiver is over now. That didn’t last long … enough.

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