The Seamen’s Church Institute’s Advocacy for Seafarers by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.

Jun 28, 2019

Since its founding 185 years ago, advocating for improvement of seafarers’ working and living conditions has been a major part of the work of the Seamen’s Church Institute of NY & NJ (SCI). At first glance, such advocacy might not appear to be in shipowners’ best interests since implementing better conditions for seafarers usually must be accomplished and funded by shipowners.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Maritime law provides extraordinary rights for seafarers, and has for centuries. Many of these rights were created in pre-Christian era shipping practices by shipowners for their own self-interests. The motivations for creating these extraordinary rights were the same then as they are now: recruiting and retaining skilled and reliable people for seagoing careers. Advocating for improving seafarers’ lives and work helps make seagoing careers more attractive options for skilled and reliable people.

The general public – and persons considering seagoing careers – do not distinguish between responsible shipowners and substandard shipowners. When substandard shipowners do not pay their crews, do not provide medical care, or abandon crews, the entire industry is tarnished. When maritime ministries advocate for seafarers, responsible shipowners benefit by enhanced recruiting and retention and by leveling the playing field of competition.

SCI is not alone in advocating for improving seafarers’ lives and work. Other maritime ministries and trade unions have also worked to make seafaring careers more attractive options for skilled men and women. The following are some examples of the SCI’s advocacy over the past thirty years.


SCI became very involved with the stowaway issue in 1992 when we worked on the MC Ruby case. Five Ukrainian seafarers were charged in France for the brutal murders of eight African stowaways at sea on a voyage from Ghana to Le Havre, France. We assisted the French attorneys defend the seafarers. Obviously, we could not and would not condone or excuse such brutality, but the case demonstrates the importance of viewing the big picture. Correcting the problem required addressing the larger forces at play.

Port states often imposed significant fines or costs on shipowners who land stowaways in their ports. The accused seafarers stated in court that they murdered the stowaways because they were afraid of the heavy fines that would be imposed for landing stowaways in Europe. Also at that time, the United States required shipowners to feed and lodge stowaways under guard throughout the stowaways’ immigration process – which could take months and cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. Some European countries had similar requirements. We drove revision of US immigration law to limit shipowners’ obligations to feed and house stowaways to two weeks (which was acceptable to shipowners) and thereby reduce the incentive to find other ways to deal with stowaways This legislative change helped seafarers, shipowners, and stowaways. We also collaborated with the Coast Guard in IMO to develop international guidelines for shipowners on humane practices for handling stowaway cases.

(The MC Ruby’s master and chief mate were each sentenced to life imprisonment and three other crew were sentenced to 20 years in prison.)

Maritime Security/Shore Leave

Within moments of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Coast Guard COTPs ordered various security restrictions in ports around the United States. From Tuesday, September 11 until Friday September 14, the Coast Guard did not allow ships to enter New York Harbor. No crew, American or foreign, were allowed to leave their vessels. This status continued for about one month. Some crews were allowed shore leave again in October on a case by case basis. Ports throughout the United States imposed similar restrictions. During this time, chaplains from SCI visited seafarers restricted to their ships in the Port of New York and New Jersey. They enabled seafarers to contact their families, provided up-to-date information on port conditions, dispelled rumors, and generally provided a reassuring, calming presence to seafarers.

Based on its unique experience in the Port of New York and New Jersey, SCI was particularly qualified to positively influence the development of post 9-11 security laws and regulations.

Our position was very simple:
That seafarers should be viewed as part of the maritime security team and not potential terrorists;
That seafarers should be allowed to transit terminals to go on shore leave; and
That chaplains should have access to vessels in terminals, especially during heightened security conditions.

These principles were incorporated into the Maritime Transportation Security Act and its regulations, and in the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. We monitored seafarers shore leave through annual shore leave surveys with data from port chaplains in our and other US ports, providing the Coast Guard and other regulators with objective data on shore leave upon which they could base policy decisions - such as the regulations on Seafarers’ Access to Maritime Facilities that was promulgated on Monday 1 April of this year.

Another problem that we confronted was the demoralizing and demonizing effect of requiring ships to post armed guards on ships whose crews had been detained on board by Customs and Border Protection. We considered this requirement to be counter-productive because it discouraged seafarers from cooperating with security officials, and it also cost shipowners a lot of money. Thanks in part to our and other maritime ministries’ efforts, ships are rarely required to post armed guards to keep detained seafarers aboard.

Environmental Crimes

Since the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989 creating the largest oil spill in US history, the United States has become increasingly vigilant in enforcing MARPOL and other environmental laws. In 2002 the United States put new emphasis on seeking criminal penalties for MARPOL violations. Since then, the United States obtained over $270 million in sanctions from more than 100 polluters and several seafarers were prosecuted and sentenced to jail.

We found that there was often a major gap between shipowners’ environmental policies and shipboard cultures.We sought to diminish environmental crimes through education about marine environmental laws, US criminal law procedures, and the sanctions that are imposed in the United States for violating marine pollution laws. We produced educational pamphlets that did not demonize seafarers and training materials that shipowners could use to educate their shipboard personnel.


The SCI has been addressing piracy issues since the early 1990's. Back then, our focus was on pirate attacks in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Early in 2007, our focus shifted to the emerging piracy off the coast of Somalia, but our concerns remained the same: what happened to the seafarers who had been attacked by pirates? Did they continue their seafaring careers? Were they still fit to work on ships? Did they need continuing medical care, and if so, did they receive it? Did they receive any help in dealing with the aftermath of surviving a pirate attack?

We did not know the answers to these questions and we were pretty sure that no one else did either. We proposed that the maritime industry devote attention to the impact of piracy on seafarers including their experiences with claims for financial losses, the physical and psychological consequences of the attacks, and the medical treatment and counseling provided to them.

When we offered these proposals early in May 2007, there had been only a few pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and piracy did not seem to command much attention among nations or within the maritime industry. Our proposals fell largely on deaf ears. The dramatic increase in Somali pirate attacks in 2008 and 2009 prompted international response, however, most of the attention was given to vessel’s cargos, not to the seafarers. Almost all of the anti-piracy discussions and measures were devoted to such issues as the use of force, arming merchant ships, and prosecuting pirates. Scant attention was given to providing for those seafarers and their families who experienced the scourge of piracy. Of the five United Nations Security Resolutions on Piracy off the coast of Somalia, none mentioned protecting seafarers.

We persisted in our advocacy work for seafarers. We asked governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the maritime industry to devote more attention to the effects of piracy on seafarers and their families.

We even addressed the United Nations General Assembly urging the UN to devote attention to seafarers and their families. In addition, SCI partnered with Mt. Sinai Medical School to conduct the first clinical study of the effects of piracy on seafarers’ mental health.

By 2010, the effects of piracy on seafarers and their families was firmly on the international agenda, and virtually all of our 2007 proposals were initiated: the ITF set up a resource program for seafarers and their families affected by piracy, a clinical study had been completed, guidelines on caring for seafarers following a pirate attack had been prepared, and industry best practices guidelines included caring for seafarers was adopted.

In reality, the risk of being captured by Somali pirates remained extremely low, but its repercussions as deterrent to recruitment for seagoing careers was huge.The maritime industry’s focus on caring for seafarers successfully countered this deterrent. And with processes in place for providing purposeful care and therapies for seafarers affected by piracy, we positively influenced retention as well.


When shipowners abandon their ships, the effects on their crews are enormous, and it produces a severe blight on the maritime industry. Our advocacy on abandonment took a long time, but ultimately produced results. One of our first initiatives was a 1998 roundtable convened to discuss the relevant issues and proposed solutions around abandonment. Our solution, which took into account the concerns of some shipowners who did not want to set up a system where the good guys bailed out the bad guys, was to raise the obligations for all ship owners to maintain proof of financial responsibility to pay crew repatriation and some wages as a condition of port entry. With the leadership of the U.S Coast Guard, our proposals were ultimately adopted in the 2014 amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and to United States domestic legislation in the 2014 Abandoned Seafarers’ Fund (46 U.S.C. 11113).


The maritime industry has changed dramatically since SCI was founded in 1834, and SCI has changed with it. But one thing has remained the same: SCI’s commitment to the maritime industry in advocating for seafarers’ well-being as new issues emerge.