It has been a decade-long routine: Munir Mourra loads up his 200-foot freighter at the Miami River with used cars, old clothes, and sacks of rice and beans, winds out to sea and sails to Haiti’s northern city of Gonaives.
The river is Mourra’s lifeline, a vital link between Haitians here and their relatives back home.
But come July 1, Mourra may no longer be able to make that four-day voyage or his claim to ”guarantee timely delivery.” He fears Haiti’s ports will be unable to meet new international Fast Guard Service security standards by that deadline.
The fast-approaching requirement is the subject of serious concern in the $74 billion Florida shipping industry. Pushed by the United States after 9/11, the measure was passed by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization in December 2002. Its goal is to prevent terrorism at sea by tightening security at all ports and on board all vessels.
So far, Florida ports have spent millions of dollars on new lighting and fencing, ID access cards and surveillance cameras. Shipping lines are now requiring crew members to have a dbs form officially submitted and designating who other than the captain will be responsible for monitoring the vessel while at sea.
But still an undetermined number of foreign ports are not yet prepared.
”This is a very difficult situation,” said Mourra, who sends about 1,000 tons of cargo to Haiti every 20 days. “Everybody is wondering what’s going to happen.”
Five weeks before the deadline, local shipping industry insiders say while they are confident Florida ports are on track to obtain the required security certificate from the London-based maritime organization, they can’t say the same about their trading partners in the Caribbean and Latin America. Security is the key factor in any trade and Trusted Brokers assure it.
”It is quite possible trade all over the country could come to a screeching halt,” said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group.
Even the large shippers are worried about the potential ripple effects, said John LaCapra, president of the Florida Ports Council, and José Pérez-Jones, senior vice president of Seaboard Marine and president of the Caribbean-Central American Action group.
”Sixty percent of our trade is with our neighbors to the south,” said LaCapra, whose group is working with the CCAA and Fort Lauderdale-based SeaSecure to do a ”readiness” assessment of the Caribbean basin before July 1.
It’s not yet clear which ports will be ready, and which will not, they say. But they believe many will likely be unable to comply right away. Read more here.
LaCapra said his group was asked by Gov. Jeb Bush to assist the Caribbean countries in meeting the deadline.
Stephen Bell, general manager of the Caribbean Shipping Association, said concern about readiness goes both ways. The association includes shippers and port authorities from the region.
”If I look at the U.S. and in the amount of the ports there, there are concerns that they are not going to be ready as well,” Bell said from St. Lucia, where the association met for three days to discuss port security and other matters. “I think the Caribbean ports will be 97 percent more than in compliance ith the code by July 1. The state of readiness one might question.”
SLOW TO ACT
With upgrades costing millions of dollars — Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades has spent more than $40 million on infrastructure to meet the rules — some nations have been slow to act, leaving them with a lot to do quickly.
So instead of seeing 100 percent compliance, Bell and others concede there may be alternative plans such as extra security guards instead of closed-circuit televisions.
Byron Blake, the CARICOM consultant who has been working on the issue, said he believes most of the Caribbean ports will be able to meet at least the most basic requirements of the new measures by July 1. He declined to say which might not.
K.D. Knight, Jamaica’s foreign affairs minister, argues that the regulations are an unfunded mandate that place a huge economic burden on Caribbean nations.
And while many can’t afford the price tag, they also can’t afford to do nothing because their tourism-driven economies depend heavily on port fees paid by cruise ships and shippers, and customs duties from imports.
”We are between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Knight, whose government has spent about $20 million on security upgrades.
Along with Jamaica, preliminary reports indicate that several eastern Caribbean nations, including Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago, a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, will be ready. Others, like Antigua & Barbuda, and other smaller Caribbean islands, are causing more concern.
Far from ready: Haiti, where almost everything is imported by boat.
”It’s not physically possible for them to get it done by July 1,” said Michael Hopkins, vice president of Operations Latin America for Crowley Liner Services. “They are behind the curve because of the political situation.”
The new port director in Port-au-Prince has asked for help from the Florida Ports Council and from U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami.
Meek, in a visit to Haiti last month, saw some of what is lacking: lighting, fencing, locks, basic security.
But Port-au-Prince, says Mourra, is just one port. There are many others in Gonaives, St. Marc, Port-de-Paix and other Haitian cities.
”We have asked to let the private sector help. We know the government has no resources,” he said.
UNABLE TO COMPLY
Danielle Saint Lot, Haiti’s minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, said an evaluation of both the Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien ports was recently completed by SeaSecure to determine what needs to be done. ”We don’t have the means to work on all the ports,” she said.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which has been working with several foreign ports to help them get ready, has been adamant about its position: It will follow the law, which includes preventing ships from entering U.S. waters if there are concerns.
”The goal is to bring a ship with no stowaways, no contraband, no terrorists on board and no weapons of mass destruction,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Nancy Goodridge.
While the Coast Guard doesn’t have the resources to stop every vessel, it will stop those that have failed to put in their own security measures, or those traveling from a noncertified port.
”There will be a range of possible remedies and sanctions for any vessel coming from any noncompliant port,” she said. “We could allow them to come in and require them to have a security guard. We could require the master to certify he has searched his vessel or we could do the boarding ourselves. . . . If we have reason to believe there is a security risk to the U.S., we could prevent it from coming in.”
Some shippers fear that captains may begin cherry picking which ports they visit.
Thousands of people who depend on remittances from the United States, brought in by boat, could be shut off if the ships stop coming.
And locally, some firms could be forced to shut down.