Comment: What a century of U.S. shipbuilding, crews have meant

The Jones Act, passed in 1920, is celebrated for what it’s meant for jobs, safety and the environment.

By Russ Shrewsbury and JR Dunlap / For The Herald

Much of America’s stature as a global leader, and its resilience through the disruption of the past several years, can be linked back to the strength and dynamism of our maritime economy.

Our nation’s mariners have reliably kept vital cargo moving no matter what; through pandemics, escalating inflation, energy volatility, war in Europe, catastrophic weather events and more. Washington state has long been the beating heart, consistently leading in leveraging commerce on our waterways to create far-reaching economic impact and providing supply-chain stability while advancing safety and sustainability. That’s why our state Senate deserves accolades for recently passing a bipartisan resolution, led by Sens. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, that recognizes maritime’s importance to our state and nation, and the Jones Act’s role as the foundation of this essential industry.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or “Jones Act,” is a federal law requiring that vessels moving cargo between two locations in the United States must be American-built, -owned and -crewed, preventing our domestic maritime commerce from being outsourced to foreign competitors. The law itself is Washington-built, having originated with then-U.S. Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington, and has long served the United States as a national asset.

In Washington alone, as the state Senate noted, the maritime industry supports 22,500 careers, the sixth highest of all the states, and generates $1.5 billion in labor income for Washingtonians and over $6 billion in economic output for our state’s economy, while nationally, American maritime supports more than 650,000 careers and generates $154 billion in annual economic output. The industry provides family-wage careers and opportunities for advancement for people across the state, whether they’re employed by major maritime corporations or smaller, multi-generation family-owned businesses like ours. The Jones Act underpins all of this by creating the space for American maritime to thrive and serve.

That service has been indispensable to our way of life, not only in Washington, but also to communities in Alaska and across the nation. Throughout the supply chain challenges the United States confronted during the past several years (and may face again in years to come), America’s domestic maritime sector — the Jones Act fleet — was a rare, welcome bright spot of supply-chain reliability as other modes of domestic freight transport, as well as international ocean carriers, struggled. Without the Jones Act, Americans would have relied on foreign carriers — with no allegiance to or vested interest in the welfare of the United States — to transport vital cargo on U.S. waters.

The Jones Act also reinforces our state’s commitment to safety and sustainability. American mariners have a personal stake in protecting the waterways on which we all depend. American vessel operators are required by law and incentivized by insurers and customers to abide by the highest U.S. standards of mariner safety and environmental stewardship. The Jones Act prevents foreign companies with lower environmental and safety standards and fewer such incentives from operating in domestic trade in Washington’s waters, and instead supports American maritime companies in leveraging their ingenuity to protect our people and our marine environment.

Sen. Jones understood the critical importance of American maritime to our nation’s, and the world’s, prosperity and security. How fitting that the law bearing his name has benefitted our state and our country so immensely, and positions Washington maritime to keep leading the way for economic growth, supply chain integrity and environmental sustainability! Congratulations to the Washington state Senate for raising awareness of the Jones Act’s many contributions to our way of life.

Russ Shrewsbury is vice president for Western Towboat Co., a family-owned marine transport company based in Seattle since 1948. JR Dunlap is in-house counsel for safety and regulatory affairs for Dunlap Towing Co., a family-owned marine transport company based in Everett and LaConner since 1925.

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