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Merchant Marine Says Food Aid Keeps Them Afloat

Shipping companies and sailors united to fight the Obama administration’s proposal to nearly halve the amount the federal government spends on transporting food aid from the United States to regions in need.

The administration argued the change would allow the United States to buy food that’s produced closer to the hungry and speed delivery.

For Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the proposal represented another effort at “chipping away at very important programs we think are very critical to the maritime industry.”

If the Obama administration had prevailed, Wytkind said, it would have been a blow to the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Just what is the Merchant Marine?

It is a small fleet of privately owned vessels registered in the United States that comprise the nation’s commercial transport service at sea and along U.S. waterways such as the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

Merchant mariners are U.S. citizens who work on bulk carriers, barges, trawlers, ferries and container ships that usually ply U.S. waters. There are several thousand commercial vessels that never leave the United States. The Merchant Marine’s oceangoing fleet numbers less than 100 ships.

When Somali pirates seized the Maersk Alabama in 2009, the American crew, including Capt. Richard Phillips, were all merchant mariners. The hijacking, which occurred after the ship delivered cargo that included food aid, put the spotlight on Phillips, whose rescue by the U.S. Navy after he volunteered to be a hostage inspired an eponymous Oscar-nominated movie. The event also highlighted the network of commercial shippers that move freight from port to port.

The Merchant Marine also transports Defense Department supplies and equipment in times of war and peace. The winding down of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to a decline in business.

The industry argued that the proposed change to the humanitarian food aid program would further shrink the merchant fleet and leave the Defense Department with fewer ships to call on in times of war or emergencies. The administration proposed an additional $25 million subsidy to help companies offset potential losses and to maintain a core group of 60 ships for military use.

That was not enough to win over lawmakers. However, Wytkind said the maritime industry continues to be wary about the future.

“We’re worried about the downward trend in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the elimination of maritime jobs. We get worried about debates like the Food for Peace debate,” he said.

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