Seaport ‘delihensiya’ makes food, commodities costlier

Last April the Dutch survey vessel m/v Fugro Equator combed Philippine waters off northwest Luzon for the sunken Japanese military warship Montevideo Maru. A World War II US submarine had torpedoed the latter in 1942. It was carrying 1,060 Allied prisoners of war, mostly Australians, some Americans and Europeans.

Australia commissioned Netherlands-based multinational Fugro for the search that took five years to plan. In only 12 days Fugro Equator, one of the world’s most advanced and well-equipped hydrographic surveyors, found the wreck 4,000 meters deep. That closed a grim chapter in international military and maritime history. Fugro Equator proceeded to the southern Indian Ocean to look for the nine-year missing Malaysian Airline MH 370.

Days prior, Fugro Equator notched another first. On March 31 it moored at La Union’s Poro Point harbor to take in 19 Filipino crewmen and unload four. The Departments of Transport, of Labor and of Foreign Affairs had long wanted foreign ships to do that in Philippine shores. It would spare Filipino seafarers the expense and effort of flying to and from European or American ports to start and end yearlong work stints.

Officials of the three departments, Coast Guard, Bureaus of Quarantine, of Immigration and of Customs attended the ceremony. Government-owned Poro Point Management Corp. hailed in its Facebook page “PPMC’s first international crew change” and Fugro Equator as a “special service survey vessel.”

But something soured Fugro Equator’s voyage. On entering La Union’s Poro Point Freeport, it was required to hire a puny local tugboat to tow it to dock and later back out to sea. Tug operator Polaris Top Marine Service Corp. charged it a staggering P500,000.

Three months since, sea transport execs are still talking about the incident. Fugro Equator, fully computerized and able to tow submarine sonars, didn’t have to be towed to and from the pier, they say. Even if it did need towing, the P500,000 charge was exorbitant.

Fugro Equator is 1,917 gross tons. Going by the Philippine Port Authority’s (PPA) “negotiated rationalized pilotage fees”, it should have been charged only $110 for tow-in and $110 for tow-out of ships up to 5,000 tons. Total: $220, or P12,000.

But Poro Point is under PPMC, not PPA. A subsidiary of Bases Conversion and Development Authority, PPMC sets its own rules.

PPMC harbor pilotage-towing contractor Polaris’ March 31 billing stated that its “docking/undocking service” took only 61 minutes, 0731H-0832H, for which it charged P500,000.

Polaris’ March 31 official receipt detailed the time frames:

• Time left terminal, 0731H;

• Time alongside vessel, 0738H;

• Time start assisting, 0740H;

• Time finish assisting, 0823H;

• Time arrival at base, 0832H.

Actual “assisting” took only 43 minutes. But the tugboat’s sail time from terminal and back to base was billed to Fugro’s Singapore office.

Foreign shipmasters have no choice but to dock at Poro Point’s deeper waters, so just bear and pass on the pilotage/towing fees to shippers. Domestic counterparts and shippers purposely avoid it.

The Philippines has 821 ports (as of 2019). PPA manages those that are government-owned and oversees private ones.

Most ports have exclusive pilotage/towing contractors. PPA’s published rates are much lower than Poro Point’s. But as reported many times in Gotcha, disobedient contractors charge hundred times more.

Example: Most of the 3,623 locally registered cargo ships (as of 2021) are 1,000-3,000 gross tons. PPA rate is P139.20. Actual charge by pilotage/towing firms: P5,000-P25,000.

Notably, this doesn’t happen at the Cebu Port Authority, also separate from PPA, because it has four competing port management contractors. The solution to exorbitant port rates is obvious: government must de-monopolize ports; more management contractors beget more pilotage and other subcontractors.

Like foreigners, local shipowners just pay and pass on the charges to shippers. If they complain, contractors gang up on them. Shippers in turn pass on to consumers.

Result: costly commodities, from the smallest shampoo sachet, nail and calamansi to home furnishings, roofing sheets and frozen meats.

And that’s just with pilotage/towing. Shipowners have to contend with port congestion, and shippers with Customs extortionists.

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