Tampa shipping executives rally around the Jones Act, an old law facing a new challenge

The law was meant to strengthen American shipping, but critics say it prevents competition that could lower consumer prices and hampered relief efforts to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Kelly Hendry, president of Hendry Marine Industries of Tampa, spoke Friday at a news conference at Port Tampa Bay in favor of preserving the Jones Act, a 99-year-old law aimed at strengthening America's domestic shipping industry. Looking on were, from left, Kerri Seke of Overseas Shipholding Group, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Kelly Hendry, president of Hendry Marine Industries of Tampa, spoke Friday at a news conference at Port Tampa Bay in favor of preserving the Jones Act, a 99-year-old law aimed at strengthening America's domestic shipping industry. Looking on were, from left, Kerri Seke of Overseas Shipholding Group, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Published March 22

TAMPA — There's no question about the impact of shipping on the Tampa Bay area's economy. It's big: 9,520 jobs and $2 billion annually, according to a new report produced for the shipping industry by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But local shipping executives warned Friday those numbers could shrink if Congress repeals a law that's been on the books for nearly 100 years, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, often called simply the Jones Act. The law was passed after submarine attacks decimated American shipping during World War I and was written to ensure that the nation had a strong merchant marine industry.

The act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried on ships that are built and registered in the United States, and have U.S. owners and crews. Supporters say these requirements ensure that shipping remains robust domestically and strong enough to ship goods overseas in the event of war.

"We shouldn't take things that are important to our lives for granted," said Samuel Norton, president and CEO of Tampa-based Overseas Shipholding Group, one of several executives who spoke at a news conference at Port Tampa Bay organized by two industry groups, the Florida Maritime Partnership and the American Maritime Partnership.

"Our mission, as the third generation of Hendry family leadership, is to honor, defend, preserve and support this profession and the unique way of life it presents through the 21st century and beyond," said Kelly Hendry, president of Hendry Marine Industries of Tampa. "Though our industry has changed" since 1926, when Hendry's grandfather founded the company, "the one thing that has remained constant is our support for the Jones Act. Without that law, our family-run and employee-owned business and the jobs it has created would not exist."

But critics say what is good for ship companies is bad for consumers. That's because preventing foreign ships from carrying goods between U.S. ports reduces competition, raising shipping costs and prices, they say. In 2017, critics also contended that the Jones Act made getting relief to Puerto Rico harder after Hurricane Maria. In response to an intense public outcry, the Trump administration suspended the act for 10 days to aid relief.

BALANCING ACT: Repealing the Jones Act would help Puerto Rico. But it could hurt Florida.

This month, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the latest bill to repeal the Jones Act.

“Restricting trade between U.S. ports is a huge loss for American consumers and producers," Lee said. "It is long past time to repeal the Jones Act entirely so that Alaskans, Hawaiians, and Puerto Ricans aren’t forced to pay higher prices for imported goods — and so they rapidly receive the help they need in the wake of natural disasters.”

At Friday's news conference, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, said he welcomed the chance to stand with workers from "an industry so vital to Tampa Bay, our economy and our national security."

"A strong and diverse maritime industry could not be more important in a state that is virtually surrounded by water," said Crist, who said he would work with the Florida Maritime Partnership "to achieve goals that benefit our economy, our region and our state."

Unlike other speakers, however, he did not mention the Jones Act itself during his remarks. After, Crist said he had a "generally favorable" view of the Jones Act but was aware of the criticisms of the law raised during hurricane relief efforts to Puerto Rico. Asked whether he would support a repeal bill if it came up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, Crist said, "I'd have to see the bill before I could take a position on it. I haven't seen it."

"I think what these people said today is true," Crist said. "It's important, and it's stood well. Look at what it's done for our maritime economy in Florida and for our country." As for Puerto Rico's shipping problems, he said, "I just want everybody to be treated fairly. Whatever that means is what I'll support."

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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