Oh Can You See…Francis Scott Key?

“Water under the bridge,”  is generally regarded as an expression of forgiveness, tinged with mild regret.

What’s done is done, and let’s move on.

But  “a bridge under water” is an entirely different matter…speaking to catastrophe.

That’s what we observed when the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore was obliterated by the crashing of a huge container vessel last month. The M/V Dali container ship bound for Colombo, Sri Lanka, was also seriously damaged.

We in San Francisco  are ever mindful of risk of having a similar tragedy occur in our Bay.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge has yet to have an episode, but the San Francisco Bay Bridge was given a glancing blow by a mega cargo ship in 2007.

On a fog bound morning that year, the M/V Cosco Busan leaving the Port of Oakland veered off course due to a bar pilot’s miscalculation. While there was no loss of human life, birds and fish populations were decimated by the resulting spill of 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel. Furthermore, 26 miles of our shoreline was contaminated.

What both of these collisions have in common is that “Flags of Convenience” (FOCs) were involved.

The escalation of FOC registries began more than a century ago when U.S. shipping companies, rather than meeting the high safety and crewing standards set in the Jones Act (the Merchant Marine Act of 1920), started to transfer their vessels to new open FOC registries like Liberia and Panama.

Under the Panamanian flag, for example, vessel operators can continue to use ships that wouldn’t meet U.S. safety regulations. They are also prone to hire foreign mariners at very low wages, all without having to pay any corporate income tax to the United States.

Today, nearly four out of five of the world’s oceangoing merchant vessels were registered under a flag of convenience.

It is also worth noting that FOC registries are not confined to cargo vessels.

A case in point is the American-owned, foreign-registered cruise ship industry.

For example, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line both have corporate headquarters in Florida but operate only FOC ships registered in foreign countries such as Panama, where international shipping companies pay no corporate income tax.

The long overdue reform of FOC is gaining traction once again in the maritime community, however.

Advocates for change maintain that every commercial vessel should be registered in the country where its owner is incorporated.

Reformers also argue that no exceptions should be made in the future.

All should be required to pay the full scope of mandated taxes to the country where the company’s headquarters are based, thereby ensuring a more ethical industry less likely to have disastrous accidents like the one in Baltimore.

The Dali carried a cargo of around 4,700 containers, including some with hazardous materials. But the chain of custody and accountability remains clouded. The ship was chartered to the Danish shipping giant Maersk, flew the flag of Singapore, and was managed by the Singaporean company Synergy Marine.

Its owner, the Singapore-based entity Grace Ocean Private Limited, is in turn a subsidiary of Grace Ocean Investment Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Meanwhile, investigations into what caused the crash are ongoing…as  the bridge remains submerged.

A note on the photo used here: This is San Francisco’s own monument to Francis Scott Key in Golden Gate Park. The statue is no longer there, however, as it was pulled down by an angry mob of rioters a few years ago.