Ship pilots suspended operations in the Port of Galveston’s channel because of fog more than twice as many times in 2017 as the year before, according to port data.
The ship pilots, which help captains guide vessels in and out of Galveston’s harbor, suspended operations 18 times in 2017 compared to seven times in 2016 and 2015, according to the data.
Fog delays can be costly to ship operators and are a source of angst for cruise lines, whose ships full of passengers have been, on more than one occasion, socked in for hours by fog as ship pilots wait for visibility to improve.
The Wharves Board of Trustees, which governs the port, and cruise line operators have voiced concern about ship pilots using fog delays to retaliate against ship operators who complain about ship pilot rates.
Officials with the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Associations disagreed with that assessment, saying they’re motivated by safety, not retaliation.
“The Galveston-Texas City pilots continue to approach suspension of services for restricted visibility consistent with the framework developed over a decade ago by the Houston-Galveston Navigational Safety Advisory Council, with input and collaboration by the coast guard, port authorities, pilot associations and the maritime industry,” Capt. Matt Bush, vice president of the pilots association, said.
“Safety of the shipping channel, the vessels and facilities using the port and the environment will always take precedence over the commercial interests of any single company. Within that framework, the Galveston-Texas City pilots understand and acknowledge the tight schedules of our port’s cruise ships and place a priority on moving them ahead of virtually all other shipping traffic. Safety of the waters of Galveston County remains our highest priority.”
The Board of Pilot Commissioners, which oversees the ship pilots, in March 2017 approved a one-year rate increase charged against vessels calling on local ports that would see tariffs raised by 16 percent.
The five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners oversees the 16-member pilots association that charges tariffs on foreign-flagged oil tankers, cruise ships or other vessels piloted into or out of ports in Galveston County.
The association, a state-sanctioned monopoly, does not face competition and has the authority to decide when it is safe to guide ships in and out of ports.
The decades-old monopoly exists because pilots vying for business might otherwise take unnecessary risks and cause unsafe waterways.
The rate increase, which was initially proposed as a 30 percent increase over three years, led to cruise lines filing a lawsuit in September 2016.
The start of the legal battle over the rate increase coincides with the increase in ship pilots suspending operations in 2017.
The frequency of fog on the coast can vary from year-to-year, but National Weather Service data shows little variance in recent years.
There were 19 foggy days in January of 2017 and 14 in 2016, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Katie Magee.
“That seems to be about the seasonal average,” she said.
Ship pilots suspended services nine times in January 2017 compared with no closures in January 2016, according to port data.
The ongoing concerns have led to the port’s governing board reaching out to the Board of Pilot Commissioners to discuss the situation.
“I have heard there has been a difference of opinion on some items and in the interest of hearing both sides, I would like to meet prior to the board meeting,” newly arrived Port Director Rodger Rees said.
Wharves Board Chairman Ted O’Rourke has been vocal about fog delays.
“My position is simple,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve got to find some way to get this under control.”
The wharves board in January asked Rees to deliver a letter requesting a joint meeting to the pilot commissioners to discuss the issues.
That move came after the pilot board Jan. 19 took no action on a meeting after commissioners took issue with recent actions and comments regarding the cruise industry.
Port officials have been trying for months to set up a meeting with the pilot commissioners, O’Rourke said.
Pilot commissioners have not yet officially responded to Rees’ letter.