By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An Abaco MP last night voiced optimism that the island's main port will pass its "make or break" inspection today, and added that failure "is quite simply not an option".
James Albury, pictured, who is also the Abaco parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, told Tribune Business he was "confident" based on what he had seen and reports received that the Marsh Harbour port will now meet international security standards.
He added that the Port Department in Abaco was now working with shipping industry stakeholders to develop a "funding mechanism", based on a fee levied on users, that will ensure Marsh Harbour has sufficient maintenance financing such that its status as an international port of entry will never be in jeopardy again.
Mr Albury admitted that this was "not the first time the port has had a scare", and said its compliance problems had been "going on for a long time" due to the absence of a consistent revenue stream to underpin essential upgrades.
Speaking after Tribune Business revealed that a failed inspection today will result in the Marsh Harbour port's closure, and derail the island's economy by halting virtually all cargo trade with the US, the south Abaco MP said both himself, the Port Department and industry stakeholders were "comfortable" the facility now meets global requirements.
"There was the mock or preliminary inspection that took place, which raised a number of items of concern," Mr Albury said of the June 18 examination. "A list of action items was developed, a lot of them procedural in nature.
"There were some procedural changes that needed to happen, as well as physical infrastructure concerns. Since I've been aware of that mock inspection and what we were facing, I've been working with the Port Controller and a few other stakeholders in the Abaco port to come up with a list of things that needed to be done.
"Essentially, from everything I've gotten from speaking to people in both the Port Department and local stakeholders in the Marsh Harbour port, I'm at the point where both they and myself feel comfortable it's ready to proceed. Everyone is feeling very confident about keeping the international clearance."
Asked about the consequences for Abaco if the unthinkable happened, Mr Albury told Tribune Business: "If it did shut down it couldn't be for very long. It's not feasible at this point to not have an international shipping port in Abaco. It's too important for the local economy and needs of local people. It's, quite simply, not an option, [to have] any unnecessary stalls and shut downs."
This newspaper disclosed how US Coast Guard officials warned that cargo trade between Abaco and Florida could be shut down after the Government-owned and managed port failed its International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) "mock" inspection on June 18, 2019.
Captain Troy Mills, the Abaco port administrator, in a "call to action" wrote that Marsh Harbour will be "closed down unless there are some major improvements" made in time for today's follow-up inspection by US and ISPS code overseers.
His letter said: "On June 18, 2019, the ISPS coordinators for the Caribbean along with Lieutenant Commander Justin Matejka of the US coast guard performed a mock inspection of the port facility that resulted in the discovery of a breach in compliance" of both the ISPS code and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) policies.
"As a result of the findings of June 18, 2019, ISPS and US coast guard officers have warned that unless there are some major improvements before the next inspection that is to take place on July 17, 2019, the port of Marsh Harbour will be closed down and ships transporting cargo between Florida and Marsh Harbour would have to discontinue their services," Captain Mills wrote.
The ISPS is a worldwide protocol that was implemented in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. Designed to prevent a repeat of such atrocities, it mandated that every country upgrade security infrastructure and procedures around its major shipping ports and the vessels that use them.
Non-compliance with the code raises an immediate "red flag" that threatens loss of both commercial shipping traffic as well as other forms of business, such as cruise ships, for ports that fall into this category.
Mr Albury, meanwhile, yesterday revealed that the Abaco Port Department and shipping industry stakeholders were working together to develop a permanent funding mechanism that would finance critical port improvements and ensure the "closure" threat never resurfaces in the future.
"They're developing a steady stream of funding built into port fees to ensure the port has what it needs to maintain international standards," he added. "They're putting forward something they believe can work.
"I don't want to say too much but what they're speaking about is a charge on the shipping companies. The percentage they're speaking about, they're confident they can do that with a fairly negligible impact on the end user as they have similar systems in other ports they do business with."
Conceding that concerns have been raised "in the past" about the Marsh Harbour port's compliance with international standards, Mr Albury said: "The port has a history of problems. It's definitely been a recurring issue. It's not the first time that the port has had a scare, and it's certainly not a brand new problem. It's been going on for a long time.
"But as far as everything I'm aware of and persons I've spoken to, as far as everything being in place and persons doing what they need to do, I feel comfortable with the inspection and look forward to the funding mechanism and what is ultimately proposed. As far as the inspection, I feel confident."
Mr Albury, though, was unable to provide much detail on the status of the $40m north Abaco port constructed by China Harbour and Engineering Company (CEC). He would only say that there were "still some matters at the port that the Ministry of Works wanted to be addressed before any hand over took place".
This means there is currently no immediate alternative to Marsh Harbour as a main port of entry. An inspection failure today would likely send Abaco's economy into a tailspin if it were to occur, given that the island - much like the rest of The Bahamas - imports most of what it consumes. With its main port of entry closed, cargo freight would likely have to be sent first to Nassau before being transferred to smaller vessels such as mail boats for onward shipping to Abaco.
This would result in tremendous cost and shipping time increases, with the extra expense passed on to both Abaco businesses and consumers in the absence of direct deliveries, thus undermining one of the most buoyant island economies in The Bahamas.