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By Elesha George

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A number of local commercial vessels are likely to be grounded until they improve their safety standards, once an amendment to the 2006 Antigua and Barbuda Merchant Shipping Amendment Act is approved by the Upper House of Parliament and later gazetted.

The amendment is expected to resolve concerns with the seaworthiness of some boats and to reduce hazards of other vessels operating within Antigua and Barbuda. A number of active vessels are said to be in violation of the law and not safe to operate in their current state.

The government also anticipates that by regularising the state’s shipping system and by giving full legal effect to treaties that have been signed on to, there will be a noted increase in the number of ships that register to fly the Antigua and Barbuda flag.

To facilitate this, the Bill makes provision for the appointment of a principle representative, who will be given the power of attorney acting on behalf of the ship owner.

That principle must meet specific qualifications which would include that the representative be an attorney who is qualified to practice law within the twin island state or a corporate management and trust services provider appointed under the same Act.

The representative will have the right to register a ship under the Merchant Shipping Act, presenting an alternative to the International Bulk Chemical (IBC) codes which have traditionally been the preferred method to register ships.

“In many instances it has been proven to be relatively slow in getting efficacious registration,” Prime Minister Gaston Browne said of the IBC system.

“The reality is that because we do not have a large flow of traffic between Antigua and Barbuda, you find that most of the vessels that are purchased either for passengers or to cargo, that they are almost invariably substandard vessels … and what they are doing in many instances is that they are placing people’s goods and people’s lives at risk,” Browne explained.

Earlier this year, the Department of Marine Services and Merchant Shipping (ADOMS) wrote to a number of vessel operators who provide service between Antigua and Barbuda to remind them of safety standards in keeping with international guidelines.

“They’ve been warning them for years,” the prime minister claimed.

“They have been warned, they have been written to and nothing has happened,” Public Safety Minister, Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin, declared in agreement.

“The government is mainly conforming with what’s required. That all those conventions with which and to which we have signed become law in this state and that is what we are trying to do,” he noted.  

However, during his contribution to the Bill, Barbuda MP Trevor Walker chided the government for the mechanisms currently in place which continue to prohibit local vessels from operating.

Walker mentioned that one of these vessels transports cargo from Antigua to Barbuda and was prohibited from operating in early April, shortly after the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Silver Seal is a sole boat that takes cargo, or food, or goods between Antigua and Barbuda, from Antigua to Barbuda, and you want to tell me that member for City West, that you can have an agency of your government that during the height of Covid that will issue an order for them to seize taking goods to Barbuda to feed the people and other services because you are saying that it is not safe anymore when they have been doing it for almost 15 years.”

Walker suggested that unseaworthy vessels be given time periodically to adopt the new safety measures without restricting services to the sister isle.

In response, the prime minister said, “At no point has Barbuda been without shipping services. So in as much as ADOMS is addressing these deficiencies and they may have even grounded a few vessels, at no point did they ground all the vessels.”

Meanwhile, St Peter’s MP Asot Michael said that while the government was improving the legal framework for marine services, it should have included a code of practice for large pleasure yachts as an additional source of revenue.

“There’s a lot of revenue that can be derived if we were to pass the legislation to allow them to carry the Antigua and Barbuda flag,” he reasoned.

The legislation to allow this additional service, Michael said, was drafted in 2014 and is in the possession of the Attorney General.

Michael also called on the government to renegotiate its contract with Meridian Shipping, saying the company was not satisfactorily growing the shipping numbers for the country.

He explained that over a 30-year period from 1986 up to 2016, the country under Meridian was only able to grow its ships registry to 1,066 ships on the international registry of ships.

“Meridian had a contractual obligation to promote, administer and expand the international registry of ships of Antigua and Barbuda and at a growth rate of about 35 ships per year, over the past 30 years … that is insufficient, that is minuscule,” he said.

For years, the government has had an exclusive arrangement with the German company until a few years ago when the contract was renewed for an additional 15 years but without the option of exclusivity.

Browne admitted that the government has “seen a decline in the registrations” – a direct effect from the reduction in ships owned by Germans over the years.

He said he expects these new regulations will grow the maritime shipping sector which has been somewhat stagnant over the years.

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