This opinion piece originally appeared in The Daily Memphian on June 29, 2022.
By George Leavell.
June marks the anniversary of the Jones Act, a critical maritime law requiring any vessel delivering cargo between U.S. ports must be owned and crewed by Americans and built in the United States.
That makes this an especially significant time to acknowledge and thank the Tennessee General Assembly for passing SJR0954 earlier this year, a joint resolution that recognizes the importance of the Jones Act and its impact on our state’s economy.
In passing this resolution, introduced by state Sen. Janice Bowling and state Rep. Greg Vital, the General Assembly made clear that Tennesseans support our state’s maritime industry and the hardworking men and women who safely and efficiently transport cargo on our waterways.
Every day, Tennesseans benefit from the maritime industry’s many contributions to our state. The Jones Act — the bedrock law of American maritime — supports more than 20,000 jobs and $4.5 billion in economic output in Tennessee.
Mariners work aboard and maintain towboats and barges on our inland river system 24/7, 365 days a year, through all sorts of challenging conditions to deliver fuel, agricultural products, cement, aggregates, steel, chemicals, containers, construction materials and other key commodities to businesses and communities in our state and across our nation.
These men and women perform a vital service in normal economic times, and that has been especially true as the American supply chain has confronted severe challenges over the past year.
Without a strong, reliable domestic maritime industry, those challenges would be even more acute than what we are experiencing today.
If we had to rely on foreign maritime companies employing foreign crews to move commerce on our domestic waterways, it would not only put Tennessee’s supply chain continuity at risk, but would also put American maritime companies — especially small local companies like Wepfer Marine Inc. where I am employed — out of business, leaving thousands of workers jobless.
The Jones Act keeps the Tennessee supply chain moving and allows companies like Wepfer to invest directly back in our local economy and hire local residents to do this essential work.
The Jones Act is also vital to America’s national and homeland security.
America’s commercial mariners serve as “eyes and ears” in alerting the Coast Guard to unusual or threatening activity on the waterways, and frequently help save lives by pulling people from the water, assisting vessels in distress and more.
Meanwhile, foreign vessels and crews are not subject to the same security regulations as domestic operators, meaning that allowing foreign vessels and crews to operate on the domestic waterways could put our ports and communities at risk.
The Jones Act also ensures a pool of well-trained American mariners capable of supporting military sealift operations in times of war or national emergency, and undergirds a viable network of American shipyards, including our own shipyard at Wepfer, to build and repair our nation’s military and commercial vessels.
I am very proud to work alongside the men and women of Tennessee’s maritime industry, and I am grateful that the General Assembly saw fit to recognize the Jones Act and its central importance to the industry and to our state.
I look forward to many more years of serving my community and country thanks to the Jones Act and our state’s strong support for this vital law.
George Leavell is co-owner and executive vice president with Memphis-based Wepfer Marine.