GAO: DOT Needs to Finalize Require Maritime Strategy for Sustaining the U.S.-Flag Fleet ASAP

The MSP-participating Maersk Chicago.

The U.S. Department of Transportation needs to expeditiously finalize a national maritime strategy for sustaining the U.S.-flag fleet and ensuring the availability of American mariners, the Government Accountability Office said in a report.

In a crisis, the United States’ government relies on oceangoing, U.S.-flag ships and U.S.-citizen crews to help the military transport goods. To help ensure this availability, the government provides stipends through the Maritime Security Program and has instituted cargo preference rules that require certain government cargoes to be shipped on U.S.-flag ships.

Despite these efforts, however, U.S.-flag ships have become more expensive to run and government cargo volumes have gone down, making it harder for carriers to stay in business.

According to U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) officials, the additional cost of operating a U.S. flag vessel compared to a foreign-flag vessel has increased from about $4.8 million annually in 2009 and 2010 to about $6.2 to $6.5 million currently, making it harder for such vessels to remain financially viable, the GAO said in the report. 

There also may not be enough U.S.-citizen sailors to meet defense needs.

A MARAD working group recently estimated a shortage of over 1,800 mariners in the case of a drawn-out military effort, although it also recommended data improvements to increase the accuracy of the count of available mariners, according to the GAO. 

In recent years, however, there has been growing concern about the sustainability of the U.S.-flag fleet. From 1990 to 2017, the number of international U.S.-flag commercial vessels decreased by about 60%, from 199 vessels in 1990 to just 82 vessels last year. 

To address this concern, in 2014, Congress required the Department of Transportation to develop a U.S. maritime strategy on the sustainability of the U.S.-flag fleet including recommendations for the future.

Even though the final strategy was due to be completed in 2015, the Department of Transportation has yet to finalize it, potentially impacting decisions on policy.  

“Without establishing a timeline to complete this required strategy, DOT continues to delay providing decision-makers the information they need to determine how best to address the challenges facing the U.S.-flag fleet,” the GAO said in its report.

As a result, the GAO recommends that the DOT complete the national maritime strategy and establish time frames for its issuance.

The complete GAO report can be found here.