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Keeping up with the Jones Act

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Patrick Novak, CEO of The French Gourmet, a Hawaii company that specialized in artisan frozen pastry dough, reflected on the issues that killed his once-thriving business and kept coming back to the Jones Act.

The company was featured in the August 2010 issue of Hawaii Business as among the small, local companies flourishing on a global scale. Novak launched French Gourmet in 1994 and began exporting products to the mainland and then to places as far away as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. The U.S. Small Business Administration named him “Exporter of the Year” in 1997, but prosperity soon became progressively more difficult to maintain due to shipping-rate hikes. The business shut down in April.

“We used to pay just over $4,000 to ship a 40-foot freezer container to Dubai,” says Novak, who says exports made up about 70 percent of his sales. “In a matter of three years, shipping the same container now costs $11,500. How do you tell your customer on the other side that your shipping costs have almost tripled? It wiped us out.”

Novak believes businesses have difficulty surviving in Hawaii largely due to the high shipping costs. For that, he blames The Jones Act, also known as The Merchant Marine Act of 1920.

“I’m sure there was some good intention and purpose for (The Jones Act) back then. But I would like to know one good reason that it is a good thing for Hawaii and its people today,” he says.

Under the act, vessels that transport cargo or passengers between two U.S. ports must be U.S. flagged, U.S. crewed, U.S. owned and U.S. built. Those rules apply to any ship that brings cargo to Hawaii from the U.S. West Coast – the main lifeline of goods for the Islands.

Foreign carriers cannot compete under those rules, and opponents say the lack of competition drives up the cost of shipping and contributes to Hawaii’s high cost of living.

“Open competition is the remarkable motivator of the free market. Competition is healthy and brings better rates, services, productivity and innovation,” says Ken Schoolland, an associate professor of economics and political science at Hawaii Pacific University.

“This enriches consumers, who save on everything they buy. It enriches Hawaii businesses and employees by opening opportunities to buy and sell more. But The Jones Act eliminates competition and choice.”

Schoolland, who has also served as an international economist in the U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce, explains he “first encountered the folly of the Jones Act while living in Alaska in the 1970s. The chief accountant at a Japanese pulp mill explained to me that, because of the Jones Act, it was cheaper for the mill to send its product from Alaska to Seattle via Japan than from Alaska to Seattle directly. The mill subsequently shut down. What temporarily benefits one special interest group hurts many other businesses and consumers.”

But the act’s many supporters, including Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation, disagree with Schoolland and other critics. Advocates say the Jones Act creates and maintains an American-owned and -operated fleet that would be crucial in times of war and other emergencies.

“The Jones Act … plays a critical role in protecting our national security by helping us maintain our ability to build, crew and deploy U.S. ships when they are needed,” U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa says.

“A review by the (Maritime) Cabotage Task Force in 2003,” she adds, “determined that the Jones Act costs Hawaii residents $5.52 per person per year, less than two cents per day. That is a small price to pay for the security of our state and our nation.”

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono adds, “Hawaii is at least 80 percent reliant on imported food. We’re hundreds of miles away from major shipping routes. Relying on foreign shippers that can easily decide a stop in Hawaii is not profitable, or who would charge us big fees to veer off their major routes, doesn’t guarantee that our hotels and shops have the food and goods they need to support our economy and communities.”

Hirono addresses the issue of higher shipping costs by saying, “If we want cheaper shipping and more competition, we should support reinvigorating our domestic shipbuilding and maritime industry and developing clean, affordable shipping fuel.”

Under the Jones Act, foreign shipping companies can supply Hawaii directly from Asian ports, but, so far, none regularly do so. Instead, Hawaii is currently served by three major American carriers: Matson, Horizon Lines, and Pasha Hawaii Transport Services, as well as several low cost barge alternatives. Each operates between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast.

According to Jeff Hull, Matson’s director of public relations, these Jones Act carriers provide reliable service to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland five times a week and, to the Neighbor Islands, 20 times a week.

If the law was changed to allow foreign carriers, Hull speculates, these ships likely would not provide the same frequency of service, which is needed to keep local retailers fully stocked with goods. And, because Hawaii has a limited warehousing capacity, shortages of food and other goods would likely occur.

Michael Hansen, president of the Hawaii Shippers Council, an organization representing companies that depend on shippers, says the council wants to alter one key part of the Jones Act Reform by exempting shippers to Alaska, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico from using only U.S.-built oceangoing merchant ships.

“We’re really focused on the U.S.-build issues and we’re not talking tugs and barges. We’re talking about the larger vessels, self-propelled ships,” Hansen explains. “It’s a fact that the cost to build a ship in the U.S. has become so great that the carriers just can’t replace them. U.S.-built ships cost at least three times the amount of foreign-built.”

It seems that Matson and Horizon would want the U.S.-built requirement to end, Hansen says, but they don’t, he believes, because they don’t want to upset the status quo.

“If you changed the law, a new operator could come in with brand-new ships and operate a more efficient service,” says Hansen. “(The carriers) don’t want to be put in that position. But if you can’t build new ships, you’re going to go out of business anyway. So please stick your head in the sand.”

But, Hull says, Matson has invested more than $700 million in its Hawaii service since 2003, including new container ships, containers, terminal cargo-handling equipment and advanced information-technology systems that provide them with enhanced logistics services.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Old to new | New to old
Jan 3, 2013 09:07 am
 Posted by  chriswlan

So, if I understand Mr Hull correctly, Jones requires an extra 23225 workers than if there was no Jones????

So everybody in HI has to fork over an extra 1.1 billion to those favored but un-necessary workers?

Jan 3, 2013 09:18 am
 Posted by  chriswlan

How about VASTLY improving the Jones?

Mandate that US cabotage must be done with barges only, ea barge no more than 200 tons, and ea tow no more than a single barge.

Think about the near-endless jobs that will create, immediately, out of thin air!!!!

Instant prosperity!

(as long as you are part of the favored minority, that is...)

Jul 25, 2013 05:30 pm
 Posted by  tonyalfidi

The US needs "Jones Act 2.0" reforms in maritime regulation. Update the covered worker definition, exempt outlying lands, and allow disaster waivers.

Jul 28, 2014 08:01 pm
 Posted by  Fairfax

The French Gourmet's failure can't be blamed on the Jones Act. Shipping a 40-ft reefer container from Honolulu to Dubai is about 16000 nautical miles and takes 44 days. It will cost a small fortune, no matter what carrier you use.

These small shippers don't realize the cost of running ships, supplying containers, and insuring ocean assets.

Hawaii is too small a market to interest large global shipping lines. It's too isolated and is not a balanced trade (import/export).

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