Weather Tops Marine Industry Day Discussion

The Greater New Orleans Port Safety Council (GNOPSC) held its annual Marine Industry Day June 22 at the Higgins Hotel adjacent to the National World War II Museum. Reflecting the diversity of marine operations and issues facing the maritime industry in and around South Louisiana, the one-day conference tackled a wide range of topics.

Front and center was severe weather, particularly with Industry Day held near the beginning of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, which runs from June 1 through the end of November. Karl Gonzales, vice president of operations for Cooper Marine and president of the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association, moderated the severe weather panel discussion, which also featured Tim Osborn with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Megan Williams with the National Weather Service, Lt. Commander Xiaobin Tuo with Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, Robert Swayze with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Capt. Gary Taylor with the Associated Branch Pilots.

Williams began by overviewing the National Hurricane Center’s outlook for this hurricane season and demonstrating some of the forecasting tools available from the National Weather Service. She also discussed social media weather influencers who are sometimes regarded as weather forecasters and shared why long-term forecast model runs are sometimes problematic. The example Williams gave was a hurricane forecast for the Gulf of Mexico last year. The problem was, the storm never materialized, and yet many on social media became anxious because of it.

Williams’ message was simple: listen to the National Hurricane Center.

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“The weather service is never going to hide a storm from you,” she said.

Similarly, Williams and Osborn cautioned people not to take this hurricane season lightly due to this year’s near-normal forecast and the presence of El Niño. That’s because El Niño doesn’t necessarily inhibit storms from forming in the Gulf of Mexico. And besides, “it only takes one” hurricane making landfall to turn a quiet season into a devastating one.

Gonzales then led the panel in an extended discussion related to a hypothetical hurricane making landfall in the New Orleans area. The aim was to strategize with a tabletop exercise so that, should a hurricane threaten, every stakeholder will know his or her role. Osborn said it’s all about readiness and situational awareness.

“Who has what role for this season,” he said.

Industry Day went on to address several key issues facing companies of all sizes, including staffing issues and workforce development, environmental regulations and alternative fuels, sexual misconduct aboard commercial vessels, Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations, and cybersecurity threats.

Regarding recruitment and retention, panelists admitted the industry is facing a number of barriers, from a lack of familiarity with maritime careers to a dwindling number of “legacy” recruits (groups historically well-represented in the industry or individuals with a family tradition in the maritime field). Possible solutions discussed included better outreach to maritime academies, a greater focus on recruiting women and minorities to the industry, and more attention given to mental, physical and emotional wellness as a means for retaining mariners.

Sexual Misconduct Reporting

Later in the day, the sexual misconduct session, which focused on reporting requirements outlined in MSIB 01-23, drew the most crowd interaction, with several attendees asking whether a false report of sexual misconduct or an investigation that does not find evidence of misconduct would nonetheless remain on a mariner’s record and potentially impact his or her license renewal in the future. Capt. Jason Neubauer from Coast Guard Headquarters answered in the negative. Panelists agreed that the intent of the reporting requirements is to create an environment where victims are empowered to speak out. At the same time, attorneys on the panel recommended that companies engage with a maritime attorney, consider purchasing licensed defense insurance for mariners, and to reach out to the Coast Guard for guidance throughout the reporting process.

Rear Adm. Wayne Arguin, assistant commandant for prevention policy and a former commander of Sector New Orleans, closed the all-day event and touched on a number of topics pertinent to the Gulf Coast and, more broadly, the maritime industry as a whole. Regarding sexual misconduct reporting, Arguin emphasized that the issue is very real and relevant.

“We have seen a pretty dramatic uptick in the number of reports and cases, actual cases,” Arguin said. “But to be clear, the Coast Guard only really owns the accountability piece of the equation.”

The everyday occurrences on vessels and whether a company culture exists to perpetuate any negative actions is up to the individual company and to the community as a whole, Arguin said.

“Until that changes, until what you accept, the kind of behavior you accept, what you condone changes, that culture will continue to exist,” he said.

Arguin said it comes down to safety.

“If you are distracted in any way, shape or form, whether it’s on the phone, whether you’re not paying attention, or whether it’s because you’re afraid someone is going to come up behind you and do something inappropriate, you are not focused on doing your job,” Arguin said. “That has direct potential implications on safety.”

On the regulatory side, Arguin said to stay tuned for cybersecurity regulations, along with issues related to alternative fuels, vessel designs and wind energy infrastructure.