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Buoying The Shipping Industry

Buoying The Shipping IndustryAccording to a group of maritime studies experts from The Fletcher School, the American shipping industry is due for a major revitalization.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.08.07] While there has been increased focus recently on security at American ports, one group of maritime studies experts from The Fletcher School points out that the commercial shipping power of the United States has plunged dramatically in recent decades. However, they wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, revisiting certain laws and policies could revive the shipping industry and have a wide impact on the way we live our lives.

"Americans are rightfully concerned about security, but part of protecting the nation is generating a strong economy," they wrote. "Revitalized coastal shipping could shorten our morning commutes as it begins to rejuvenate America’s wider maritime economy."

The article was authored by The Fletcher School's Henry Willard Denison Professor of History, John Curtis Perry, doctoral candidate Rockford Weitz and 2006 Ph.D. recipient Scott Borgerson.

Once a strong source of innovations in the maritime industry, American shipping has steadily declined over the past century. Only one U.S. port currently ranks among the top 10 in the world—and the fact that it is Los Angeles-Long Beach, the authors write, shows how much maritime trade has shifted from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

One reason for the decline, they note, is the Merchant Marine Acts passed in the 1920s and 1930s, which block American coastal shippers from purchasing ships manufactured in foreign countries and prohibit non-American ships from calling on two or more American ports consecutively.

Originally intended to protect the domestic shipping industry, the Fletcher experts contend it has caused more harm than good by restricting coastal shipping opportunities. By granting shipping companies more choice, they say, both domestic and international maritime trade could benefit.

"Freed from the restraints of the Merchant Marine Acts, commercial shippers could not only begin to resume their position in global trade but also handle much more of the freight that moves within our borders," the authors wrote. "Before railroads and highways were developed, a network of water transportation routes connected America’s port cities and towns."

Indeed, changes to shipping policies could have an impact not only on the waterways, but also the highways. The shipping restrictions of the Merchant Marine Acts helped the growth of the trucking and freight-rail industries—the long-term effects of which, they add, are now evident.

"The trucks that carry nearly a third of our cargo clog the highways," they wrote. "Shipping has always been the most economically efficient way to carry goods from place to place; it requires no investment in highways or rails, and thanks to the relatively frictionless ease with which ships move across water, fuel costs per ton are low."

Additional measures, such as investment in port upgrades and new ship propulsion technologies, could also help revive what was once one of the strongest merchant fleets in the world.

"By amending this law and, at the same time, encouraging the development of domestic coastal shipping, Congress could help restore America’s status as a great and proud maritime nation," the authors wrote.

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