The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System is a uniquely co-dependent environment in which to conduct maritime commerce. Some have said that the Great Lakes-Seaway System is not composed of individual port communities, but rather a single port community with individual docks spread out over more than 2,300 miles of fresh water bordering two nations, two Canadian provinces and eight U.S. states.
At its best, the Seaway System is collaborative and cooperative, with diverse interests coming together for the common good. At its worst, it can be an introverted, penny-wise and pound-foolish backwater with an inferiority complex that runs as deep as Lake Superior.
To outside observers the Great Lakes-Seaway maritime industry is a curious thing. One eye-opening Seaway paradox is that the System was created by a cooperative act of two federal governments, yet for many of the industry’s practitioners there is little understanding or even healthy curiosity as to how the two federal governments that created the system work. In most $7 billion industries, one finds a deep understanding of the all-to-intimate relationship between commerce and the public policy process—not so in the Great Lakes-Seaway System.
To compound this problem, at this particular point in time, still fewer of the industry’s practitioners actually engage in the public policy process in any meaningful way. Too many of our brothers and sisters in this industry seem to have trouble seeing beyond the edge of their desk, let alone their port community.
The most recent, and perhaps the starkest contrast between those who actively engage in the public policy process for the good of all in the Seaway System (we’ll call them “propellers”) and those who sit at their desks hoping that others will do the hard work (let’s call them “ballast”) was the protracted battle with the State of New York over ballast water regulations.
Some organizations and individuals contributed extraordinary amounts of intellectual capital, hard work, travel expenses and the most precious commodity of all—time—to this battle for the Great Lakes-Seaway System’s survival. Some, frankly, did not. You, and all your colleagues, all know who you are. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System just won an important victory over forces who manufactured what would have been a government-imposed threat to the tens of thousands of Canadian and U.S. families that earn their livelihood from Seaway commerce. Rouge bureaucratic regulators in a single state capitol embarked on an ideological crusade against shipping that posed an existential threat to billions of dollars in Seaway commerce. But now that the great battle of New York’s ballast water regulations has been settled, this may be a good time to take stock of where we are and look forward to determine where we should go.
Bear in mind that the recent battle was not the first time that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway maritime industry faced threats to its very survival. In the second half of the 1980’s and carrying on into the early 1990’s the Great Lakes-Seaway System was mired in a miasma of malaise and complacency. The System seemed to be dwindling away just as the “Great Lakes Set-aside” for PL 480 cargo tonnage was dwindling away year-by-year.
By 1992-93 the Seaway’s crisis gave birth to a new spirit. Industry leaders were called together for a series of “Seaway Summits”, a Cold War-era title for a meeting of leaders looking for solutions to the System’s most vexing problems. Led by the U.S. and Canadian Seaway agencies, decision-makers representing government entities, ship owners, terminal operators, port authorities, organized labor and grain, steel, iron ore, coal and other cargo interests attended the meetings. Those sessions laid out a policy agenda to reform regulations, reduce government-imposed burdens on commerce, and improve the System’s overall cost-competitiveness.
Those meetings were part of the catalyst to: 1) lengthen the Seaway’s navigation season; 2) widen the Seaway’s maximum beam allowance; 3) deepen the Seaway’s maximum sailing draft; 4) increase the overall length allowance for ships transiting the Seaway; 5) eliminate the U.S. Seaway toll collection; 6) freeze increases in Canadian Seaway tolls; 7) integrate Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation technology into navigation aid placement and Seaway vessel traffic control and; 8) Update the Seaway’s marketing thrust to entice more ocean vessel operators to trade their ships in the Great Lakes
Similarly, the Great Lakes-Seaway Coalition was formed in July of 2011 to begin to draw our industry back together to face new threats, advance new initiatives to reform maritime policy and serve as an impetus to move our industry forward. The Great Lakes District Council of the International Longshoremen’s Association reached out once again to government officials, port authorities, terminal operators, vessel owners and agents, trade associations, cargo interests and academia to put together a policy agenda that brought the industry’s practitioners together to work cooperatively on items of mutual interest. Those meetings have spawned a new congressional caucus to focus on Seaway issues, a cooperative effort to responsibly lengthen the Seaway’s navigation season and a robust lobbying effort that helped turn back New York’s Ill-conceived ballast water regulations.
The Great Lakes-Seaway Coalition is an inclusive organization whose only requirement of its members is that they care deeply about advancing Great Lakes-Seaway commerce and that they are willing to invest their time and effort on advancing the group’s agenda. With a number the Coalition’s key policy initiatives already achieved, it’s time for the group to form a new policy agenda and tackle new challenges.
In many ways the Coalition has become the Great Lakes-Seaway System’s policy propulsion system. Still, there are significant organizations that still go unrepresented at the coalition’s meetings and activities. Some of the leaders of these organizations are hamstrung by tight budgets or micro-managing boards of directors. Others suffer from a chronic myopia about their role in an inter-dependent System. As the Seaway begins its 2012 navigation season please choose to be a propeller rather than ballast.