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Bid to flag up better image for Panama

AN IMPORTANT initiative to back the drive for improvements in the activities and image of the Panamanian register has been taken by lawyers who work from the territory.

The Panamanian Maritime Law Association hosted a working lunch in Panama City for its members to meet the highest-ranking officers of the register headed by its administrator, Jerry Salazar.

The profession is keen to see that the relevant government officials strengthen their commitment to improve services provided to owners with ships registered under the flag.

It was the first of monthly gatherings the association plans hold to ensure that the huge register and its users work harmoniously and that any problems that arise can be solved immediately.

José Raul Mulino, partner in Fabrega Barsallo Molino & Mulino and former minister of foreign affairs, welcomed the meeting as a positive step.

"It is about time the Panamanian authorities started the necessary proceedings in co-ordination with all the representatives of the Panamanian maritime private sector to redefine and promote our merchant marine," he says.

With the world's largest register under increasing pressure from rival flags of convenience, Mr Mulino says changes needed to be "based on a programme to modernise its structure, administration and competitiveness, taking into account the efforts that competitors of Panama are making to promote other registries".

The outcome of the first meeting was a pledge to maintain the Panamanian register according to today's exacting world requirements. Further meetings will address new developments.

It is a crucial time for all registers, with the Panamanian government having taken a lead in legislating a package of tax incentives to attract ships.

Association president Juan Felipe Pitty underlined the gravity of the situation by remarking that Panama faced fierce competition from other open and national registries that would like a share of the fleet that Panama has developed over the years.

Segumar, the New York office in charge of safety issues, has had a lower profile in the past two or three years as some of its operations have been transferred to Panama City, so that more control can be exercised over its operations. However, the Panamanian administration has again been revising Segumar's modus operandi to give shipowners other offices to contact around the world.

As a first measure Mr Salazar said that Mr Arosemena, a technical engineer, had been appointed to join the staff. His involvement in the New York office would be mainly to look after the large mobile offshore drilling fleet forming part of the Panamanian merchant marine.

Mr Salazar said that as an example of his office's pledge to offer a service to satisfy the requirements of flag users, two members of the New York Segumar office were now on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to assist in casualties and any other emergencies or events requiring attention.

Many people have been yearning for a person with the qualities of the late Capt Al Fiore, who died in early 1998, to play a leading role in boosting the register's relationship with its customers.

Mr Pitty recalled that Capt Fiore was a pivotal officer in Segumar as well as a pillar of the register. Both the register and its users would benefit if someone with such qualifications and vision could be employed in the New York office.

Mr Salazar gave a personal guarantee that the efficiency and complete turnround of the Segumar office in New York was a priority.

The administrator added that by the end of August a new head of the shipping department at the Panama office of the registry would be appointed.

The person chosen would work to the orders of Marixenia de Barrios, director general of the Merchant Marine Office.

Mr Salazar was frank in admitting that the open registry - created in Panama in the early 1920s - was subject to numerous criticisms from different economic blocs around the world and that more stringent safety and security measures for the vessels and their crews were being demanded. The administration must observe those requirements and ensure compliance, he added.

On concern that arose last year over the illegal issue of seafarer certificates, Mr Salazar told the lawyers that the FBI had questioned a person who was co-operating with the investigation.

Mr Salazar confirmed that the documents were issued in Panama and that the suspects involved would be found and named shortly.

Panama has more than 285,000 ratings and officers working on its ships and a backlog in certificates is being blamed partly on delays at other registries, whose co-operation is needed to process the corresponding applications for certification by Panama.

During June the Panama office dispatched 25,000 licences to Manila.

Meanwhile, Mr Salazar referred to complaints in recent months from users over fines imposed for vessel deficiencies found on annual safety inspections.

He said that since last September the requirements on administrations were harder and it was important to obtain co-operation of the users to comply with all the new rules that had been introduced.

In respect of the detention of ships, Mr Salazar said talks were going on with the US Coast Guard to create a bilateral channel of communication so that the administration could be informed immediately if any Panamanian ship was to be detained.

That would allow swift contact with the owner and his lawyers so faults could be rectified and a vessel allowed to sail without delay.

Those taking part in the Panama City meeting were informed that the register was studying through its database all reports received on ship deficiencies and non-conformities to determine which were repetitive.

In all the discussions between the legal experts and the authorities appeared to go well.

José Manuel Jaen, of law firm Patton, Moreno & Asvat, says: "Top-level executives of the Panama Maritime Authority and the Directorate General of Merchant Marine were present at this meeting, reinforcing their strong commitment and interest towards the shipping industry."

In particular, Mr Jaen praised the efforts of the flag's administrator. He says Mr Salazar "has maintained direct communication channels with the private sector, with users of the flag as well as with members of the Panamanian Maritime Law Association and the Maritime Chamber of Panama, and has thus been proactive in finding solutions for problems affecting the maritime industry in Panama".

Mr Salazar says he was encouraged by the resolve of the Panamanian lawyers to strengthen the good working relationship with the users and his administration, and he paid tribute to the importance of the lawyers in everyday maritime work and their goodwill towards the Panamanian merchant marine.


© 2002 Maria Dixon - ISM Shipping Solutions Ltd.

Published in Loyds List, with permission from the Author