What Has MARINA Done For The Country’s International Container Shipping?

It was in 1974 that MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority was created by a Presidential Decree by then President Ferdinand Marcos. Its primary mandate was the development of our maritime industry. For such function it has the shipping companies, the seamen and the shipyards under it. MARINA was our maritime regulatory agency and it even has quasi-judicial powers. As such this agency is responsible for issuing franchises to ships and in approving route permits. For a long time too they decided rates and fares in the shipping industry. MARINA was in charge of the inter-island trade as well as the ocean-going trade.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

When MARINA was created in 1974, we still had many international lines ranging from Philippine President Lines (sometimes known as United President Lines), Maritime Company of the Philippines, the Eastern Shipping Lines, Madrigal Shipping as well as an assortment of smaller international lines some of which were associated with our national passenger liner companies. In those days we were ahead of most of our neighbors in international shipping and that might have included even South Korea and China. Can anybody imagine that was possible and believable? It can even be an entry now in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not”.

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From an newspaper found by Grek Peromingan

When Martial Law came another ocean-going company emerged in the scene, the Galleon Shipping Corporation of Herminio Disini, a documented Marcos crony (“Some Are Smarter Than Others” by Ricardo Manapat) and of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant “fame”. He and the surging Philippine President Lines (PPL), now helmed by Emilio Yap, of the Manila Hotel and Manila Bulletin fame, had a race in the ocean-going scene, acquiring tons of big ships from the National Development Company (NDC) of the Philippine Government. Government functionaries during Martial Law simply cannot ignore what were called as “marginal notes”.

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From an newspaper found by Grek Peromingan

The two giant companies were able to accumulate a total of some 200,000 gross tons of ships totaling some 20 ships each. How big was that? The only other time that figure was approached was when the WG&A was created with the merger of William Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in 1996 and that included the container ships for a total of some 60 ships.

In using government funds for development the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) is mandated act as the validator if the project really makes sense. And I assume the input of MARINA was sought in the maritime field because supposedly it regulates this field and it is tasked for its development.

I wonder about the divergence. In the 1970’s, our neighbors were already stressing and supporting the creation of their international container lines after seeing this new paradigm develop in the late 1960’s in the more advanced countries. In our country, what the National Development Company acquired for Philippine President Lines and Galleon Shipping Corporation were the castoff bulk carriers and OBO ships of the other countries some of which were even built in the 1940’s and the 1950’s (and it was already in the 1970’s; during that period we buy ferries that were 10 years old). What was the sense in that? Well, if there is “slush”, then that is the “sense” maybe.

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Built in 1958. From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Where was MARINA in all of that? They should have been the “experts” telling the government the “development” was headed in the wrong direction. Shall we lay the primary blame to NEDA? They might have MBA graduates there from good schools but that degree does not confer any maritime knowledge (well, they might not even know the difference of port to starboard or bow to stern). Was it because MARINA is full of lawyers in the upper echelons and not by true maritime experts? The government can hire consultants if they lack knowledge. Did they ever try to enroll true maritime experts in this case?

Fast forward to the great political and financial crisis of 1983 when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated and the economy was tottering, let alone the Marcos regime. Not long after this the Philippine President Lines and Galleon Shipping Corporation toppled along with the Martial Law regime that supported them. Their ships stopped sailing and most were given the fiery torch treatment of the ship breakers. Some others, the newer ones were sold abroad. Practically none survived locally except for the Galleon Tourmaline which became the Madrigal Integrity of Madrigal Shipping.

And that was really a great lost chance for Philippine shipping. It invested a lot of money in ships and all came to naught. And it is very hard to find a second chance after a venture that lost great money and simply went down the drain. The government was left practically holding nothing but just an empty bag. Or shall we say a bag with a lot of scrap metal.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, some local shipping companies still tried to engage in the international container trade at least in the short routes in the Far East. It was not really a full container service as understood in the full sense of the world. One of these was the Aboitiz Overseas Shipping Corporation (AOSC). Another was the Eastern Shipping Lines (but it was mainly operating general cargo ships). None ever engaged big container ships by international standards.

I thought Aboitiz was serious in this business when they acquired three brand-new container ships from Ukraine starting in 1994, the Ramon Aboitiz, Vidal Aboitiz and the Luis Aboitiz. The three were under Aboitiz Jebsens and were not part of the merger that produced WG&A. However, after a few years the three were sold. Maybe they found out competing with established international container lines is difficult. We don’t have much to offer the world anyway. Abaca and copra have lost importance in the world market and we have no more logs left and metal ores were in the doldrums then. Our tropical fruits and fresh produce still had limited production and markets then.

A new millennium is always greeted with great fanfare, hopes and expectations. But not in our international shipping. By this time we almost have no container ships going abroad. We practically have no bulkers or OBO ships going abroad. Of course, some small general-purpose cargo ships will go abroad if there is cargo but that is nothing to be proud of and that is not significant enough to be counted. All we had was a lot of mariners wanting to board ships somehow.

Where was MARINA in this plunge of our international shipping, I would like to ask? Where were they as developers of our shipping? Where they simply just too busy pushing papers and affixing their signatures to the regulations they impose on our seamen? Their number is nearly a million so imagine all the papers that need to be cleared. Maybe because of the weight of all of these they have already forgotten that their primary duty is to develop our maritime industry. Actually our mariners are over-certificated. Our doctors, engineers and other professionals don’t have to waste time pursuing such many certificates. In the mariner world, it is not only certificates that they have to cope with. They also have to undergo a lot of training repeatedly at their own expense. Maybe the lawyers in MARINA should be the first one to undergo and pass these trainings and be able to handle ships in the real world.

Today, we still have no international container shipping lines. Well, not even reefers which are important to our fresh fruit and fresh produce exports except for two ships I heard is chartered by Lapanday Foods Corporation of the Lorenzo family. If an innocent lad will look at the ships that call on our ports he might think our national line is Maersk as they dominate our foreign trade.

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A ship of the de facto “national” container line of the Philippines

Today our neighbors have their international container lines. We have none. So clearly in this segment MARINA was clearly a great failure after all these years. It simply dropped the ball.

What are their plans for this segment? Or is it better to just dissolve them and replace them with a body of true maritime experts (like those who know that most maritime accidents are caused by human error) who truly have the interest of our shipping in their hearts and have the vision (and who know their main job is not the export of mariners)?

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