The U.S. workboat industry has an opportunity to achieve big goals in 2016 – achieving rational vessel discharge rules, preserving Coast Guard authority over regulation, and protecting the Jones Act. That was the message delivered by Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators, at the 24th International Tug, Salvage and OSV Convention in Boston today.

“I believe 2016 is going to be a transformative year for our industry, and for the better,” Allegretti told delegates.

He said the industry is looking at huge economic and political uncertainties. “Nearly every sector of our industry is facing difficult business conditions. There’s no indication where the trough might be.”

Alluding to the U.S. presidential race and the chaos it has brought to both the Republican and Democratic parties, Allegretti noted that “to say we live in interesting times is an understatement.”

That upheaval has aggravated what is already a cycle of partisan distraction in Washington, D.C. Every four years, Allegretti told the audience of international visitors, it becomes even more difficult for policy makers to focus on the public’s business.

On the plus side, the industry has strengthened its position in policy debates, starting with a steadily improved safety and environmental record, Allegretti said.

“A better safety record is better for all of us,” Allegretti said, recalling legislation and safety upgrades over 25 years, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Industry leaders sought cooperation with the Coast Guard and “a lot of that good we anticipated has in fact materialized,” he said. By every measure – fatalities, injuries, spills, vessel casualties – safety is far improved across the board, he added.

“The record of safety attributes really positions us well in the public policy arena,” Allegretti stressed.

“Congress and the American public expect flawless safety performance” no matter the industry’s economic circumstances, he said. “Safety is our franchise to operate tugboats and barges.”

The Subchapter M towing vessel regulations, expected to be out within a few weeks, are another joint venture of AWO and the Coast Guard to improve safety, Allegretti said. Now “this is the year” for the industry to push for resolving conflicting vessel discharge rules between the Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and get “workable, scientifically based” national rules, he said.

After 2015 brought several policy challenges to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, 2016 too could be “a very consequential year for the Jones Act,” Allegretti said.

“The good news is those attacks are getting no traction in Congress, with the administration and the military,” Allegretti said. Defense officials in particular have become more vocal about how they see the Jones Act as integral to both U.S. sealift capability and port and waterway security, he noted.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.