An obscure maritime law hit the news recently because of catastrophic weather and its consequences. Let’s hope we never have to hear about it again.
Just a few years ago, very few people knew or discussed the Jones Act. Now everyone is talking about it. In a colossal but somewhat predictable fiasco, while Puerto Rico was being pummeled by Hurricane Fiona, the Jones Act prevented a cargo ship from docking off its coast to deliver some 300,000 barrels of much-needed diesel fuel. The Act dates to 1920 and is formally known as Article 27 of the Merchant Marine Act. It regulates “cabotage”—a word that sounds sinister but isn’t. Cabotage is territorial maritime commerce between ports within a country. Eighty percent of the world’s coastlineshave cabotage laws. The Jones Act stipulates that those goods traveling between U.S. ports must travel on U.S. ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, staffed with a crew of U.S citizens or U.S permanent residents—and be flying an American flag.