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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

On Friday, President Obama traveled to New Orleans. Standing in front of the port, he made the case for investing in U.S. shipping.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We now export more goods and services than ever before, and that means jobs right here in the United States of America.

RATH: But here's the paradox: Even as U.S. exports have grown, the U.S. share of shipping has declined dramatically. The traffic in and out of U.S. ports increases every year, but most of those ships fly foreign flags. In fact, the number of U.S. flagged ships is barely one quarter what it was in the 1950s. And that means fewer and fewer jobs for the men and women who work on those ships: the United States Merchant Marine. That's our cover story today: why U.S. shipping is struggling to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: It's 12 o'clock sharp on Friday at the International Union of Masters, Mates and Pilots in Long Beach, California. Time for job call.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, in fact, we have nothing on the offshore port today. However, we have plenty of night work for the weekend.

RATH: Los Angeles is the busiest port in North America. Merchant Marines have gathered here to bid for jobs. They actually draw lots to see who gets to go first.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. OK, y'all. Well, keep me on the (unintelligible) on the first shift.

RATH: But there's no long-term work available today, just fill-in shifts. Dave Boatner is a vice president of the union. He saw the industry change a lot in his years as a merchant mariner.

DAVE BOATNER: I graduated from Cal Maritime in 1978. And the company I worked for when I started working for them in 1978, they had 50 ships. And now they got four. So it's, you know, significantly reduced.

RATH: Boatner, who's retired from being a captain, is relatively removed from the changes in the industry. He's not out bidding for jobs at job call anymore. But for Liz Marconi, a 32-year-old second mate here with Boatner, looking for a job is always on her mind.

LIZ MARCONI: If you really are adamant about your job, which I am, you're going to come to the union hall every day and sit here for job call because you never know what's going to happen. You know, with our jobs, someone in San Francisco could have a job opening. And you could just be sitting here and they'll call me, like, OK, we have a job. Do you have anybody down there? I'm like, oh, yeah. They're like, OK. Well, do they want it? Well, then we start bidding again, you know, whoever is in the hall. And I've gotten a job like that. I've gotten to fly out to Shanghai.

RATH: A job like that might last 40 or 50 days, sometimes sailing through dangerous waters. The short notice, the threats of pirates and storms, and a long stints away from home all take their toll on young mariners.

MARCONI: I am married with two girls, a 6-year-old and a 5-year-old. So they do pay the price of me leaving. But I also am fortunate enough that when I do come home, I'm a full stay-at-home mom. So I kind of get the best of both worlds.

RATH: You don't bring the office home with you, huh?

MARCONI: No, I do not. That is one, like, one of the best luxuries of our job. Whatever happens on that ship after I get off that gangway, not my job anymore.

RATH: But there are fewer and fewer jobs available. Over the past quarter century, the Merchant Marine has hit one obstacle after another. Rising labor costs in the U.S. made U.S. mariners less competitive. Environmental laws raised the cost of doing business for companies with U.S. flagged ships.

And the past year has been especially tough. First, sequestration cuts threatened to cut off funding for the 80 ships that are currently supported by the U.S. military, which depends on the Merchant Marine to transport vital war supplies.

Now, a proposed change in the U.S. food aid program threatens to further reduce funding. Right now, there's a requirement that the U.S. government buy millions of dollars of food here in the U.S. and ship it on American vessels.

Chris Barrett studies the economics of food aid at Cornell University.

CHRIS BARRETT: The food aid programs that we have today were really created in 1954 with the enactment of something called Public Law 480 or PO480. And PO480 was created to dispose of the government-held commodity surpluses that were generated by relatively generous government price support programs offered to farmers. So that when there were bumper harvests and prices collapsed, the government stepped in as a buyer of last resort. And as a result, the government held large stocks of things like wheat and skim milk powder, corn, soy, et cetera.

And it's expensive to hold those commodities indefinitely. So we would send them to developing countries that were not yet commercial customers of the American agribusinesses. It turned out that the main thing that you could really accomplish with food aid besides surplus disposal was humanitarian assistance. It was a very effective vehicle for responding to emergencies that resulted from natural disasters like droughts or typhoons or earthquakes as well as war.

RATH: And, Chris, could you talk about some of the proposed changes we're hearing about now?

BARRETT: The Obama administration in its most recent budget proposal earlier in 2013 proposed that the Congress authorize the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, to purchase up to 45 percent of the food aid it distributes in developing countries. So it would curtail the buy-American restriction for up to 45 percent of the purchases.

RATH: Tonya Rawe is a spokeswoman for the international food aid organization CARE USA. She says the proposals make sense.

TONYA RAWE: Buying food locally is 30 to 50 percent cheaper. That means for the same amount of money, you can reach a lot more hungry people. You can reach more families in need.

RATH: How will that translate into lives, this aid, for instance? How many additional people would get food?

RAWE: If we do all of the reforms they have proposed, we can reach four million more people. Some estimates have said we can reach up to 10 million more people. And these are people that are in dire need of assistance that are facing a life and death situation every day.

RATH: Is there any risk, though, that locally, there may not be the resources in the end to fill in the gap?

RAWE: Sure. So when we look at buying locally to address emergency needs, there is analysis that goes on to make sure that in buying locally, we don't upset that market. And so those are the cases when buying locally doesn't make sense, that we would continue to tap U.S. farmers. That's that flexibility to tap the best tool in the toolbox. And it's making sure we have all the right tools in the toolbox.

RATH: The Obama administration and food aid NGOs are making the case for buying food outside the U.S. That proposal is being debated in Congress this week.

I asked Chris Barrett of Cornell who has the most to lose if the proposal passes.

BARRETT: Well, the shippers, without question. And they're uniformly against this. And the reason is pretty straightforward, that if you start buying commodities in developing countries, there's no longer need for the ocean freight service to move it from the United States to the recipient country. And they're worried about the loss of business.

RATH: If you talk to people from the shipping industry, they say the loss of business would be catastrophic, the final nail in the coffin after a half-century of the industry decline.

Lee Kincaid is the president of the American Maritime Congress, an advocacy group for the U.S. Merchant Marine.

LEE KINCAID: We would potentially lose eight to 10 U.S. flagged ships and the jobs - the U.S. mariner jobs with those ships.

RATH: So you said eight to 10 U.S. flagged ships could go out of commission. How many jobs would be lost along with that?

KINCAID: Well, considering most merchant ships have two crews and one crew being at work while the other crew is on vacation spending time home with their families, you're talking approximately 500 U.S. mariner jobs. There's other transportation jobs to move those commodities to market - port jobs - and all the jobs which help to support a U.S. flagged shipping company.

RATH: We've heard an argument, pushing back on this, that these jobs aren't actually going to go anywhere. These are individuals who are highly skilled. International shipping is not going anywhere, so they'll just, you know, continue to work. How would you respond?

KINCAID: Well, first of all, you have to remember, especially if you're going to train an officer to serve aboard a merchant ship - for example, I'm a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. That's a four-year college education, so it takes a minimum four years to train an entry level officer. And then you add on top of that the time it takes to do additional education, take additional testing in order to become a captain or chief engineer. You're talking a total investment of approximately eight to 12 years to make that happen.

Now, should these eight to 10 ships disappear due to food aid changes, I don't see any other ships - new ships being built on the horizon and new jobs created where these mariners can be used effectively.

RATH: But Chris Barrett says the economics just don't support the food aid program as it now exists. If the industry can't do without government money, then it needs to remake itself for the modern economy.

BARRETT: It's important to keep in mind which are the vessels that are at risk here, which are the vessels that depend very heavily on U.S. food aid. And they're largely relatively out of date bulk and break bulk carriers, vessels that were built in the '70s or early '80s. So effectively, what we're doing is we're propping up vessels that no longer have a commercial market. So we're keeping a market open largely for the vessel owners.

The mariners can get jobs on other ships. You know, if - a skilled mariner can work any of several kinds of vessels. The real losers in the event of these reforms would be the very few people who own four or so vessels that depend very heavily upon U.S. food aid, but they're largely antiquated vessels.

RATH: But even as the Merchant Marine struggles, young people still flock to it. This year, the U.S. Merchant Marine academies will graduate 300 new mariners. Because at its best, it can be an amazing job. Captains make six figures. And young mariners like Liz Marconi pick up leadership skills that can transfer to all sorts of opportunities.

MARCONI: I'm hoping to make master someday, so hoping for the - our industry to stay alive to make that dream come true.

RATH: Whether the U.S. shipping industry can still rely on money from food aid is up in the air. Congress continues to debate food aid reforms beginning this Tuesday.

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