Tuesday, June 21, 2011

State Orders Bay Area Pilots to Provide Service

This story has been revised from an earlier version.

State officials were forced to order Bay Area bar pilots to provide pilot service to CMA CGM vessel after pilots threatened to refuse to pilot the vessel to dock at the Port of Oakland because the vessel owners did not support recent moves at the state level to increase pilot rates.

The state of California grants the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association with a codified monopoly on pilot service in the Bay Area, including language that requires all large commercial vessels calling in the Bay Area to use the bar pilots.

Rates charged to vessel owners for pilot service in the Bay Area are set by the state and the pilots are licensed and overseen by the California Board of Pilot Commissioners.

On June 15, state legislation that would have increased average compensation by 2015 to $530,000 a year for the roughly 60 bar pilots who move large commercial vessels in an out of the Bay Area, failed to pass a State Senate committee.

Despite already earning on average about $400,000 a year, the pilots claimed in rate hearings that since their last raise in 2006, their pay – based on the weight of the ships they pilot – has stagnated while expenses have increased.

Maritime industry representatives opposed the rate increases, arguing that the projected increases in shipping gross tonnage would more than compensate the pilots under the current rates.

As the pilot rate statutes were being argued before the state legislature, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a Bay Area trade group that represents 90 percent of the shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast and one of the most vocal opponents of the proposed pilot rate increases, was informed by a member shipping line that the line had been erroneously overcharged by the pilots for pilot service.

On June 9, the PMSA sent an advisory to all of its members detailing what the pilots could legitimately charge for under the current state rate statutes.

The next day, the pilots informed the Port of Oakland that, due to the PMSA advisory, the maximum length of any ship they would henceforth provide pilot service to would be 1,140 feet, as opposed to the previously agreed – as recently as June 8 – limit of 1,205 feet. The change effectively barred carrier CMA CGM's massive 1,145-foot-long 9,400-TEU container vessel CMA CGM Norma, scheduled to arrive just days later, from calling at the port.

The pilots association later told Port of Oakland officials that the pilots would provide service to longer vessels, including the CMA CGM Norma, but only to an anchorage near the port, not to a dock at the port. Since the pilots association has a monopoly on pilot service in the Bay Area, it is unclear how the CMA CGM vessel was proposed to get from the offshore anchorage to a port dock.

On Friday, the acting secretary of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, who also oversees the state Board of Pilot Commissioners, sent a letter to the head of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association.

The letter said that the state pilot Board has been closely watching the recent rate-setting process and "is aware of recent threats to refuse to pilot the CMA CGM Norma through the San Francisco Bay to dock..."

Acting BTHA secretary Traci Stevens directed the pilots association to "take every lawful action under your authority to ensure that these threats do not materialize."

She warned the pilots association's Bruce Horton that he was responsible in his role as the association's Port Agent to "supervise and manage matters related to the official duties of bar pilots licensed by the [state pilot] Board."

Stevens ordered Horton, under penalty of legal action including disciplinary action by the state pilot Board, to "take every action under your authority to ensure that full, complete, and appropriate pilotage of the cargo vessel CMA CGM Norma from the 'SF Buoy' through the San Francisco Bay to dock..."

Stevens wrote that the letter and order were necessary because there was not enough time to conduct a public meeting on the matter and that a failure to ensure proper pilotage of the CMA CGM vessel could have "serious adverse economic, transportation, and other consequences."

A statement by a public relations firm, on behalf of Captain Horton, notes the pilots had earlier negotiated with the shipping company to bring on a second pilot, at a one-half pilotage rate, for the 1145-foot CMA CGM Norma, and that Captain Bruce had communicated his decision to complete the vessel move with an additional pilot to both the ship owner and the Pilot Commission prior to the receipt of any communication or directive from the state Bureau of Transportation & Housing.

The CMA CGM Norma, piloted by a bar pilot, arrived at a Port of Oakland dock at 1 p.m. on June 19. Though originally scheduled to arrive June 18 at 3 p.m., a delay at the vessel's previous call caused the one-day delay.