America’s Merchant Marine in peril

The U.S. Merchant Marine fleet will be dead in ten years if the food aid lobbyists convince Congress to eliminate the cargo preference requirements which mandate that government impelled cargo be shipped on U.S. flagged and U.S. crewed vessels.


By Bruce Branick | May 29, 2013

President Obama’s sequester brain child became Danny Werfel’s responsibility to parcel out budget cuts among the federal agencies. As controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Werfel has been until recently what could be called the CFO for the United States of America. Werfel, described as a quintessential bureaucrat overseeing the stimulus program and federal sequestration or plainly put a technocrat, was tapped last week to become acting IRS Commissioner in the wake of the admitted targeting by the agency of conservative tea party and grass roots patriot groups.

As the White House point man on sequestration, Werfel oversaw the paring down of the nation’s Merchant Marine fleet accomplished largely through food aid cargo preference rules involving the ‘Title 11 Food for Peace Program’ for the purchase of grains and crops from American farmers.

Under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the ‘Jones Act,’ it is required that American products including farm goods be transported by American built, flagged, owned and crewed vessels, while in time of war America’s Merchant Marine fleet is tasked with the transport of personnel and equipment into conflict areas.

In 2008, during the Bush administration, Congress strongly supported the cargo preference program, that is, until the election of Barack Obama and the advent of the stimulus program. Thus, it began with the administration’s preference for alternative energy. The Department of Energy declined to apply cargo preference rules to the transport on U.S. vessels of alternative energy products, while the administration lavished billions of dollars on this fledgling and inefficient industry.

Congress, without holding so much as a single hearing on the subject, did an about face in the summer of 2012 voting to cut the cargo preference for food aid from the mandated 75 percent to 50 percent calling it an ‘offset’ in budget parlance. Denise Krepp, a former Coast Guard officer, wrote in Maritime Executive that according to the American Maritime Officers this decision “put 16 ships, 640 seagoing jobs, and 2000 jobs in related sectors at risk.”

Enter OMB and the green eye shade technocrats who think sending countries with poor and starving populations American taxpayer dollars funneled through international non-governmental organizations (NGO) like OXFAM will cut costs and provide sustenance to millions of hungry people worldwide. The U.S. branch of OXFAM based in Boston with offices in Washington shares the ‘climate change’ ideology and ‘social justice’ mission of its global parent and coincidentally of the Obama administration.

“OXFAM’s IRS report says its mission is to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and injustice with local groups in more than 90 nations, which includes giving them cash to buy food,” writes Tony Munoz for the Maritime Executive. Munoz further explains, “Ending food aid by sending money and NGOs overseas to ensure that people are fed is another problem in itself. Since the U.S. began sending money to foreign governments to ensure democracy and its people are fed, it just hasn’t worked…Most of these nations’ farmers cannot produce enough food in the first place, so what is going to change in the future? The cash will be used for other purposes, and everyone will suffer.”

Retired Admiral James A. Lyons writes for the Washington Times, “Ending food aid stamped ‘Produced and Made in the USA’ and sending the money and expensive non-governmental organizations overseas to ensure that people are fed will only ensure more corruption and waste.”

The former Commander in Chief of America’s Pacific Fleet laments the force majeure being applied to the U.S. Merchant Marine that was once relied upon to support America’s conflicts and military operations throughout the world.

“It has always been the reliable partner, particularly when foreign flag ships and crews have refused to carry our needed military supplies and cargoes into conflict areas or for political purposes. However, recent actions by the Obama administration call into question the sustainability of the U.S. Merchant Marine.”

The Merchant Marine lost a formidable number of sailors in World War II, 8,651, of 215,000 who served, were blown up, drowned or burned to death on tankers, dry-cargo vessels, and troop transports. 733 Merchant ships were lost, most to submarine wolf packs.

Today, except for a hundred, or so vessels dedicated to safety of the nation, and preparedness for the ready-reserve fleet concerned with rapid deployment in the nation’s emergencies, the U.S. is a skeleton in the world of sea shipping tonnages. On the other hand, the tiny country of Denmark and a single ship owner, Maersk, has 1000 vessels hauling 500 bottoms loaded with Asian, mostly Chinese, offshore factory products once produced in the U.S.

Admiral Lyons pleads that “Before the administration proceeds with changing the concept of the Food for Peace Program and the food aid cargo preference program, the U.S. Transportation Command and its component Military Sealift Command should be asked to assess the impact to national sealift capabilities. All Maritime Security Program ships have made significant contributions to our current military conflicts, through cost-effective and reliable transportation services. There does not appear to be any reason for reducing this requirement for the foreseeable future.”

Deep-sixing the current system, would result in owners re-flagging 30 ships (transferring registries to Panama and Liberia, or other ‘flags of convenience’) and in losing 1200 qualified Merchant Mariners, when America needs all the employment it can get.

Denise Krepp declares that the “U.S. Merchant Marine fleet will be dead in ten years” if the food aid lobbyists “convince Congress to eliminate the cargo preference requirements which mandate that government impelled cargo be shipped on U.S. flagged and U.S. crewed vessels.”

America the beautiful, a land with over 88,000 miles of coastal bays and sounds set into two enormous oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, a country that once sent 2000 ships to sea all over the world; today, only a whisper remains.


Bruce Branick served his nation for over 5 decades at sea. After three years of North Atlantic convoy duty as a Radioman in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol and a fourth year attached to the Richmond Naval Air Station, a Florida Blimp Base concerned with Anti-submarine Warfare, he spent 50 years in the U.S. Merchant Marine as a Radio Officer, voyaging the world over from the Arctic to Antarctica, from Galveston to Istanbul, from Suez to Hong Kong. Mr. Branick, a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, is author of Memoirs of a Loose Cannon and Two If By Sea (1970).