Foreign Flag Ship Port Call

Regulations and Security Procedures

Drew Tucci, Captain, USCG (retired)

A client recently asked for some information about what happens when a foreign flag ship calls on a U.S. port facility, and what responsibilities the facility owner has.  U.S. port facilities are part of complex global trade system, in which government agencies, vessel owners, and facility owners all share responsibilities.

When a foreign flag ship calls on a U.S. port, the vessel owner/operator is responsible for most Coast Guard and Customs regulations.  The vessel agent typically addresses these requirements.  Nonetheless, the facility owner also has some responsibilities. 

All foreign flag ships bound for U.S. ports must notify the U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Customs, at least 96 hours in advance.  This is a VESSEL requirement found in 33 Code of Federal Regulations Part 160.205.  The Notice of Arrival (NOA) process is done electronically, and it allows the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to do a detailed joint vetting of the ship, its crew, owner, operator, cargo, past port calls, as well as past safety, security, and environmental compliance. 

When I was on active duty, I visited the DHS National Targeting Center in Reston, VA on several occasions.  Coast Guard and CBP personnel, along with other agencies, work side by side, comparing intelligence, sharing data, and evaluating the ships, personnel, and cargo bound for U.S. ports.  It is a great example of government agency cooperation. 

While there is considerable overlap in authority and jurisdiction, the Coast Guard generally has primary authority over the ship, with Customs having primary authority over the cargo and the crew members (e.g. cargo tariffs, visa requirements for crew members).

The National Targeting Center provides their analysis to the local Captain of the Port (and CBP office).  The local Coast Guard and CPB personnel add their perspective, including knowledge of local risk factors, and determine what actions, if any, they will take.  On rare occasions, the Coast Guard and/or Customs will place restrictions on a ship or its crew, such as holding it offshore until they conduct a boarding, or issuing a “detain on board” for crew members identified as illegal immigration risks. 

As the ship approaches port, local pilots (typically licensed by the State and the Coast Guard) will guide it to the dock.  Pilots will communicate with the Coast Guard, and often the facility operator, if they have any concerns about the ships they bring to port. 

The Coast Guard and/or Customs may also board a vessel after it is at the facility for more routine checks.  If they find significant safety/security/environmental regulations they may prohibit cargo operations until the matter is resolved. 

In most cases, once a ship is safely docked, cargo operations may begin.  The Coast Guard generally only requires advance notice of fuel/cargo transfers in special circumstances (33 CFR 156.118), but a courtesy notice to the local Sector or Marine Safety Unit is a good idea.

Safety regulations for oil/fuel/hazmat transfers for a foreign flag ship are the same as for U.S. barges:  Qualified Person in Charge, hoses in good condition, communications, and other requirements per the Declaration of Inspection (33 CFR 156.120). 

Container and dry bulk cargos don’t have specific Coast Guard transfer requirements, but the facility owner should be alert for any safety, security, or environmental risk factors.  If you start having any doubts while communicating with the vessel master or chief mate, address them before someone gets hurt or other problems develop. 

Security regulations for vessel interaction are described in your Facility Security Plan.  A Declaration of Security (DoS) is generally NOT required at MARSEC Level 1, unless specifically required in your FSP.  That said, a DoS is a good idea, and the FSO and the VSO should be clear on joint security procedures, especially reporting of suspicious activity and any planned Seafarer Access activity.

Your FSP should already address Seafarer Access requirements.  In general, vessel crew members (with visas provided by Customs) may transit through your facility without undue delay – but of course they need to be escorted.  Your security guards should be screening them, just like any other visitor to your facility.  Seafarer Access requirements also apply to seafarer advocacy groups (Seaman’s Church Institute, mariner unions). 

While the vessel is responsible for all vessel requirements, the facility operator is responsible for:

  • FSP requirements (33 CFR Part 105). This includes monitoring and screening people and stuff coming from and going to the vessel (crew members, vessel stores, cargo)
  • Facility environmental requirements – 33 CFR Part 154 – think oil spill plan, hoses in good condition, drip pan under the manifold.
  • Facility safety requirements – safety gear on the dock, traffic management, controlling hot work and fire hazards, especially for facilities that handle flammable or other hazardous materials.
  • Facility portion of oil transfer requirements.
  • Reporting suspicious activity.
  • Reporting perceived deficiencies in vessel security procedures (yes, this is a judgement call).
  • Reporting oil spills, unsafe conditions, or similar situations.

Cooperation and communication among all parties is key to secure, safe, and smooth cargo operations.  Invest in building relationships with all the agents, pilots, officials, and other personnel who come together at your facility.