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Part 2: Overfishing Ourselves out of the Maritime Industry and Defense of the Homeland

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December 14, 2011

by Jeffrey J. Milstein, Moran Office of Maritime and Port Security (MOMPS)

Jeffrey Milstein port security watch officer shipboard
Jeffrey Milstein, image by Barbara Veiga

On August 2nd, 1939 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to then President Roosevelt stating, “A single bomb…carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”  This threat remains as real today as it was in 1939.  The majority of the public and even Congress fear the threat of a major attack will come hidden inside one of the thousands of boxes that arrive via container ships into our ports every day.

In response to this fear, we create many different container security initiatives and trade partnerships against terrorism in order to limit our exposure and screen as much as possible before the vessel even arrives on our shores.  Unlike a container ship, where there are many hoops to jump through to hide something nefarious in a box, the engine room of an oil tanker is a much easier place to hide the nefarious box as it would be much less scrutinized and much harder to keep track of.  That being said, tankers are obviously part of many inspected and scrutinized programs.  One might suggest however, that tankers provide more of a threat than container ships as they are part of a tramp shipping market (tramp trade is a market which does not have a fixed schedule, itinerary or published ports of call) where routes and schedules can’t be analyzed by think tanks.  More often than not, cargo may not even be sold on a tramp ship or discharge orders given until weeks after a vessel leaves the load port.

Even more unpredictable than a tankers route would be a commercial fishing vessel’s route, which may rely upon the “good feeling” for which location a fishing boat captain might take.  While the methodology of fishing routes is likely easier to figure out than the schedule of a tanker, one thing is for sure: Fishing vessels have the ability to go uninspected and unhindered in their daily operations which make them the perfect threat vector to the fragile state of the maritime industry.

In addition to the fragile state of the maritime industry, a recent study completed at Oxford University reports:

“Fish, sharks, whales and other marine species are in imminent danger of an unprecedented and catastrophic extinction event at the hands of humankind, and are disappearing at a far faster rate than anyone had predicted.  Overfishing has cut some fish populations by more than 90 percent”.

The threat vector, the history on port security, terrorism, piracy and how it all relates to the U.S. maritime industry and the reasons why such threats are not being addressed were spelled out in Part 1, “Terrorism, Pirates, and blowing the whistle on Commercial Fishing Before it Causes the Next Big Attack”.  In part 2, the goal is to explain what happens if this threat continues not to be ignored, as well as how we can start to solve this by being proactive, rather than reactive after a devastating attack to the nation.

What happens if the threat continues is not addressed?

After the terrorist attack of 9/11, the airline industry went into a financial tailspin.  By 2005, four of the nation’s five largest carriers — Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways — filed for bankruptcy protection.  The nation’s 10 largest airlines combined lost an estimated $29 billion between 2001 and the first six months of 2011, and the cost and convenience of airline travel for all were grossly impacted forever.  While 9/11 had nothing directly to do with our ports, it actually impacted the maritime industry more than any other event in the history of maritime including the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and subsequent OPA 90 regulations.  After 9/11 the U.S. demanded the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set forth regulations for securing vessels and facilities, which ultimately gave birth to the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code.  This was developed in response to the perceived threats to ships and port facilities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, now known as the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) regulations.  Its full provisions came into effect on July 1, 2004 after what was an unbelievably fast and comprehensive implementation process for an industry that rarely saw the likes of vulnerability assessments, development of security plans that included passenger, vehicle and baggage screening procedures; security patrols; establishing restricted areas; personnel identification procedures; access control measures; and/or installation of surveillance equipment, fencing and increase in guards.

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US Flag off back of boat in NY Harbor, photo by Jeffrey Milstein

The driving force behind all of this change was not an attack on the Maritime Transportation System (MTS), but actually a “perceived threat”.  Now imagine if an attack actually took place in the maritime domain within the U.S. interior that directly affected the citizens of our nation, not just economically but with considerable loss of life as it happened when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  How would the industry and government react to the future handling of operations and how maritime security is conducted if an actual Transportation Security Incident (TSI) were to happen within the one of our 361 U.S. ports?  More importantly, how would the citizens of our country react?  Aviation is a necessity for travel and it was heavily impacted by a fear of people to fly securely even though  it was often their only choice. The effect on the public’s faith in the cruise industry, which is not a necessity for vacation and transit, would be devastating if there were an attack in maritime that translated to a realistic perceived threat against the cruise industry.  Ultimately the industry would rebound, however it would likely suffer from a significant reduction in attendance for quite some time.

One could only speculate how cost-prohibitive security measures would become and how much of an impact a nationwide sustained heightened Maritime Security Level (MARSEC) 2 or 3 condition would have on our economy and to the global markets.  In 2008, USCG Admiral Thad Allen told us that the U.S. maritime transportation system adds $700 billion to the U.S. economy annually, calling it “the lifeblood of our economy.” He later cited as an example that when a labor dispute shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2003, the American economy suffered losses estimated at $1 billion per day. With a terrorist attack you would have to add the possible costs in infrastructure damage and relative expenses for a recovery in order to reconstitute trade and commerce to that $1 billion per day loss to truly see how devastating an attack would be.

If we continue on the same path, and a Transportation Security Incident (TSI) is caused with significant loss of life or economic impact directly resulted from a fishing vessel, both the fishing industry and the maritime industry will be grossly impacted.  Fishing vessels would no longer have access to docks in and around ports, security zones would be established affecting fishing vessels ability to continue to operate.  It is even possible all commercial fisheries within the U.S. EEZ would be temporarily halted.  At first, it sounds unlikely, however look at the temporary and permanent impacts to drilling after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and to vessel crew shore leave after 9/11, and to single hull vessels after the Exxon Valdez spill, etc.  While this would be great for our oceans to get some time to regenerate and repopulate, the economic stability in our country would suffer a critical blow because of job losses and massive inflation of food costs.

The unfortunate state of Congress and the federal government today is that rules and regulations for security are often not endorsed or pushed through until a significant amount of people die first.

This means in order for the majority of our bills, regulations, and guidelines to be written and threats to be taken seriously by our legislators, they have to be written in the blood of those who died because of an incident.

Strangling the Maritime industry

After the events of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, OPA 90 increased the commitment that industry had to make to be prepared for an oil spill response.  By increasing the industry’s accountability, many important steps were made in establishing a more environmentally sensitive maritime environment.  Three major items that came out of this incident were the implementation of the USCG document “Certificate of Financial Responsibility” (COFR), requirement for Vessel / Facility Response plans, and the establishment and identification of Qualified Individual’s (QI).

It took many years for the proper requirements and safety measures to fall into place after the Exxon Valdez spill and for them to not be considered a nuisance or cost prohibitive measure by the maritime industry.  At this point, those same measures that the industry pushed back on that provided a cleaner and safer environment are now a standard part of doing business and have been streamlined with everyday activities.  This being said, the USCG, with the implementation of MTSA, made a large step in the same direction with security measures as OPA 90 did with safety measures, but many still feel push-back in relation to costs for implementation and upgrades in security.  It is extremely rare for organizations to invest money into securing themselves against something that they may themselves see as a perceived threat if there are no regulations requiring them to do so.  One of the main contributing factors for this is the constant fear of what will come next and how that will affect ship owners and facilities in a market that is already suffering some of the lowest shipping rates in the past few decades.

If an attack were to happen now, causing more stringent regulations, it might just be almost impossible for many companies to bounce back from given the state of the industry today.  Considering the state of the Euro, countries like Greece, which have a significant stake in the maritime world, would not be in any position to start reorganizing or investing into new equipment or requirements.   Because charter rates are so low in some sections of the industry, we are seeing things we never saw before like traders chartering Very large Crude Carriers (VLCC) and anchoring them offshore for a year fully laden with cargo rather than entering into new tankage agreements at facilities.  We have even seen what some considered “graveyards of ships” anchored in Indonesian ports waiting for cargos.

The industry needs an environment for ship owners to want to go over and above and be willing to try innovative methods for security rather than living in the current state of fear waiting for the next set of restrictive regulations or event to be written that will cost excessive amounts of money to comply with.  Ship owners, facility operators and the crew who effectively have their boots on the ground everyday more often than not, know how to better secure their interests than the legislators writing these bills and using them to attach ear marks that are in most cases laughable.

How we can start to solve this?

As a port agents, we see gaps every day that potentially leave the door open for a myriad of plausible scenarios for a terrorist planning attacks on our country.  But what we don’t see is the regulations and laws to close many of the gaps that actually already exist.  No one wants to reinvent the wheel, they just want to put their name on something that doesn’t cost billions, doesn’t impact voters and doesn’t take long to achieve.  There’s no such thing as proactive, just reactive, even when the requested result is not possible.  For example, the “9/11 commission recommendations act of 2007” requiring 100 percent screening will likely not be achieved unless a box blows up and then somehow or another it will be achieved, even if it slows the maritime transportation system to a screeching halt.  MTSA as described earlier was in response to 9/11 and we achieved 100 percent total transformation of all U.S. ports in six months from the date of implementation.  That’s historic, but that was in reaction to the events of 9/11, 100 percent screening wasn’t.  The concept of 100 percent screening came from the 9/11 commission report which was completed three years after the attack and it didn’t become a priority until it hit the congressional floor 3 years later.

In the case of commercial and recreational fishing, it is an industry that is already exposed and already has laws and regulations governing them, yet overfishing, poaching, and unenforced regulated fishing continue to be an open threat vector and continue to bring us closer to an extinction event.  Commercial fishing vessels are given quotas and specific instructions to what they can fish, how they can fish, when they can fish, and with whom they can fish.  Are we inspecting these vessels when they arrive on the dock to confirm they are doing what we license them to do?  Do we track their routes, and do we ensure everything is on par? To take it a step further and possibly a bit overboard, do we know if they are going offshore and meeting with foreign vessels or going to foreign ports or being hijacked or being used to run guns and weapons, drugs, or other nefarious purposes?  The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. But, what we do have is laws in place allowing us to inspect, search and penalize these same vessels for breaking the rules.

We already have a system in place to take the fear of threat out of an entire industry; we have a system in place to fine and penalize those breaking the rules, which would subsidize the force needed to enforce the regulations.  There are people breaking the laws, we know this because our oceans are emptying at catastrophic rates.  These vessels should be a part of the system, they should be required to carry AIS regardless of their size and be monitored by a fisheries enforcement agency.  They should have to report their arrivals through a system similar to the electronic notification of arrivals (ENOA) to the USCG National Vessel Movement Center (NVMC); they should have to be boarded by a DHS agency upon arrival.  They should have to pay an inspection fee and be penalized if they are breaking the laws that were created to protect bio-diversity and the oceans that cover the majority of our planet.

The DHS Small Vessel Security Strategy (SVSS), which provides a clear picture that we do not know how to defend against the small vessel security threat, is currently posted on the internet for potential terrorists to see in a 57-page document on DHS’s website.  This strategy “harmonizes related strategies into a multi-layered, unified approach for the component agencies within DHS, and lays the groundwork for DHS cooperation across the broad small vessel stakeholder base”.

The problem with this strategy is there is no clear concise way to deal with or resolve this issue.  We must stop trying to address all small vessels as the same and start identifying ways to take pieces out of the equation little by little in order to whittle down this massive undertaking.

There is a significant difference between the threat posed by a standard recreational vessel and a commercial fishing vessel.  Commercial fishing vessels are crewed with several experienced people who are prepared to handle rough weather, be offshore for long periods of time, and are willing to take chances.  While some recreational boaters may be much more experienced than commercial crew, the reality is that most recreational boaters go out for the day, the weekend, or a specific time period as a vacation and they can be tracked and patterns can easily be identified as to what might be a threat or not.  However, commercial fishing vessels and even private chartered party boats and day trip vessels are not as easy to track.  The ease at which a person can join one of these private vessels to fish for the day is startling.  While the vessel crew is required to have a Transportation Workers Identification Card (TWIC) with background checks by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), there is no requirement for ID checks, record keeping or vetting of guests who board.  This allows for a great starting point for would-be terrorists to collect intel on our nation’s ports.  Intel can easily be collected on the vector of fishing vessels but also on the shipping patterns in a given port as well.  Many of these daytrip fishing vessels pass through ports, choke points and regions where someone could pretend to fish for the day or for a few weeks and get into regions where they otherwise could not see the flow of traffic from the water instead of behind a fence and scrutiny from the land.

Stay tuned for the third and final chapter to this series: “Who is responsible for enforcement of our fisheries, who should be responsible and how we can save our oceans from extinction while proactively protecting our nation from terrorism”


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