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COVID-19 Effects, Tech Vulnerabilities Challenge Marine Inspectors

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the ability of marine inspectors to check the safety of the domestic fleet last year and increased the Coast Guard’s reliance in the short term on remote inspection techniques, according to the annual flag state control report.

“This past year presented unprecedented challenges on a global scale. No part of daily life or segment of industry was spared from the direct impacts of COVID-19, including maritime commerce,” U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Adm. Richard V. Timme said in the report. “From increased consumer demand and supply shortages to passenger reductions and crew change complications, it is more apparent than ever that the Maritime Transportation System is critical to the global economy.”

The U.S. flag fleet contained 19,398 vessels subject to inspection last year, with Coast Guard marine inspectors conducting 18,414 inspections. COVID-19 precautions and effects drove drown the number of inspections by 14 percent from the previous year, while the number of deficiencies discovered also dropped 14 percent.

“To meet unique social distancing requirements and delays in vessel availability, the Coast Guard employed remote inspection techniques to conduct certain inspections and audits, ensuring continued compliance with domestic and international regulations and conventions,” Timme said. “While this approach worked well to meet short term requirements, it illustrated that there is no replacement for boots on deck. The Coast Guard will continue to explore ways to incorporate remote inspection and auditing techniques to augment the physical attendance of highly trained Coast Guard marine inspectors.”

The most deficiencies were discovered on towing vessels, followed by passenger crafts, barges, and cargo ships. Cargo ships had a higher ratio of deficiencies when taking into account the size of the fleet, followed by passenger vessels.

The average towing vessel in the domestic fleet is 35 years old, with cargo ships an average of 29 years old. Marine inspectors “still examine steam propelled vessels and riveted steel hulls,” the report noted, in addition to “new technology including ballast water and exhaust gas treatment systems to reduce the environmental impact of vessels, computer control systems to improve safety and efficiency, and advanced Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), fuel cell, and battery propulsion systems.” The Gulf of Mexico has the highest number of marine inspectors, followed by the southeast coastline.

“The maritime industry continues to expand its use of cyber technology to increase the efficiency and reliability of the Maritime Transportation System. However, where cyber technologies create benefits, they also introduce new vulnerabilities and risks,” Timme said. “The interconnected nature of the Maritime Transportation System provides vectors for the exploitation, misuse, disruption, or failure of cyber systems with the potential for subsequent injury or death, harm to the marine environment, or disruption of vital trade. Vessel owners and operators should thoroughly review their cyber systems to identify potential threats and weaknesses and take actions to bolster security measures.”

There were 1,644 reportable marine casualties — including collision, loss of power, or loss of life — reported in 2020 involving 1,956 inspected vessels. Cargo ships most often reported a material failure or malfunction, personal injury or death, or a loss or reduction in vessel propulsion steering. Barges and towing ships most often suffered from collision, allision or grounding, while passenger vessels most often reported a material failure or malfunction followed by personal injury or death and collision, allision or grounding.

Last year there were 63 flag state detentions issued for vessels with serious substandard conditions, including 43 towing vessels and 13 passenger crafts. By percentage, cargo ships led flag state detentions with 0.88 percent of their fleet. Conditions that warranted detention included fire safety, structural conditions, propulsion and auxiliary machinery, working and living conditions, and emergency systems.

In 2020 Flag State Control Officers attended 25 Document of Compliance (DOC) audits, the report said, adding that the Coast Guard revoked two DOCs based on recommendations from recognized organizations that have authority to issue international certificates on behalf of the United States or other third-party organizations.

The Paris MOU 2019 Annual Report released on Aug. 6 moved U.S. flag fleet performance from the “Grey List” to the “White List,” which represents quality flags with a consistently low detention record, the report noted.

There are 75 U.S. flag vessels in the Maritime Administration’s Maritime Security Program to provide strategic sealift capacity to the Defense Department as needed. Three vessels were reflagged into the U.S. fleet under the Maritime Security Program last year.

Last year the Coast Guard launched the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety National Communications plan “to promote a variety of outreach mechanisms and information sharing instruments between the Coast Guard and the fishing industry” including dock walking, newsletters, social media and official correspondence — recording over 378,000 interactions by 2,492 USCG staff members that included civilian, active duty, reservist, and Auxiliary personnel in the first six months of the program.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a speciality in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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