A MAJOR seafarer's group on Sunday chided the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) saying that they failed to plug the loopholes in maritime safety enforcement in the country and that most were done without the benefit of proper consultations with stakeholders.

In a press conference in Makati City, Nelson Ramirez, president of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS) said the series of Memorandum Circulars (MC) issued by Marina administrator Ma. Elena Bautista though sweeping and bold is “misplaced” solutions to address the problem of maritime safety.

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“The memorandum circulars issued by Administrator Bautista supposedly to plug the loopholes in maritime safety enforcement were done post-haste, without proper consultation to the concerned maritime stakeholders, and haphazardly, that it would appear that those were meant more to shun the blame on the series of maritime disasters to somebody else,” Ramirez said.

He cited as an example the order requiring all ship owners to have life jackets on board their vessels replaced right away which he added is not simply the right way to do it.

“Instead of simply coming out with an MC on life jackets, Marina should conduct an actual inspection of life jackets onboard vessels, and not at its offices. Some shipowners may present life jackets that conform to the standards in the offices of Marina but actually do not install them onboard their vessels so Marina should have regular actual inspection of life jackets. They should recommend the immediate replacement of only the life jackets that do not conform to the standards and not total replacement,” Ramirez added.

Ramirez said Marina's recent orders were part of the “knee-jerk reaction of Bautista for the flak that she has been getting as of late in the series of Senate and Congressional investigations on the recent maritime disasters that occurred in the country.”

The UFS also sided with the small ship owners and the local class society firms in disputing the provision of yet another Marina circular where the agency stated that it would just like to have one accredited class society for all domestic ship owners effective March 31, 2010 saying it would kill off competition.

“That would breed monopoly. Marina should allow the existing local class societies to band themselves together as one provided they comply with the international standards of the International Accreditation Class Society. Small vessels can be classed by the Philippine government class society provided the inspectors are properly trained and not the kind of experts that Marina presented in the Senate recently who does not know the difference between inland waters and open seas and vessels designed for inland waters and open seas like the MV Baleno 9, which Marina approved to sail in open seas,” he further explained.

The group also cited another circular wherein Marina required all domestic ship owners to have their vessels enrolled in P&I Clubs in order for the owners to police their own ranks against the operation of unseaworthy vessels.

According to Ramirez, the insurance scheme should very well apply to large domestic ship owners and operators like Aboitiz, Sulpicio and Nenaco, among others in order to ensure liability to the large number of passengers and substantial cargo they are carrying.

At the same time, the group questioned the lifting of Marina's preventive suspension on Sulpicio Lines’ MV Princess of the South and MV Princess of the Earth late last year because both vessels are covered only by local insurance and both have an insurance of only US$1.5 million for wreck removal and US$1.5 million for marine pollution which are not enough.

“A case in point is the MV Princess of the Stars which now becomes a navigational hazard because the cost wreck removal is US$7 million. If MV Princess of the Stars was covered with P & I insurance, she could have been removed immediately,” Ramirez pointed out.

“The international P&I Club set up is also not applicable to the operators or owners of small ferryboats and fast crafts. No small ship owner in his right mind would have his P5 million vessel insured under P&I for US$15 million. A good idea is for Marina to initiate the establishment of a local P&I Club,” he added.

The group said that Marina should have instead set standards based on the category or size of the vessel being insured.

Last week, small domestic ship owners asked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Leandro Mendoza to have Bautista replaced by a competent person who knows the local maritime industry better or they would stage a “maritime holiday” beginning March 1, 2010.

The small ship owners numbered more than 500 or about 90 percent of the inter-island trade in the country.

Ed Pastrana, president of the Philippine Roro Operators Association (PROA) and spokesman for the coalition of shipping operators, said they want Bautista removed from office because of her “defective memorandum circulars” and inability to address major problems in the maritime industry.

Those calling for Bautista’s ouster are the PROA, Visayan Association of Ferryboat and Coastwise Service Operators, United Trampers Association of the Philippines, Lighterage Association of the Philippines, Metro Manila Tugs, Boats and Barges Owners Association, and the Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federation.

Pastrana said their group commands over 500 ships that transport passenger and cargo in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Earlier, Bautista had threatened to suspend ship owners’ franchises or certificates of public convenience if they proceed with the maritime holiday. (AH/Sunnex)