There is a “communication gap” between the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry, Her Majesty’s Customs and the public, according to Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley.
During the Standing Finance Committee deliberations late last year, Mr. Wheatley said the VISR should hold a press conference to “please explain to the public what are the policies and the process for their boats to be right in the BVI waters,” according to a recently released report on the closed-door SFC proceedings, which were held in November and December.
He also was quoted in the report as saying that government is taking the blame for the public not understanding the enforcement of regulations on vessels.
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn reportedly asked related questions during the deliberations, questioning why new restrictions were being enforced on crewed yachts and pleasure vessels over the past six to 12 months. In response, VISR Director John Samuel cited “greater cooperation” between customs and the shipping registry designed to ensure that operators obtain a safety certificate from VISR before they can get a commercial or recreational licence from customs, according to the SFC report.
The industry was previously “unregulated” in terms of how the rule applied to charter companies, he explained, according to the SFC report.
He also said his agency’s role is to verify that vessels operating in VI waters are operating in accordance with safety legislation.
To that end, the shipping registry is responsible for inspecting the vessels, verifying that they are complying with the safety codes, and issuing them safety certificates, he said.
In order to apply for a safety certificate, he continued, an operator must provide proof of ownership or documents authorising the commercial operation of the vessel in question.
This is required whether or not a vessel is registered in the territory, he said.
“Not only the water taxis and local operators have to abide by this, but it also applies to the charter companies as well,” he said, according to the SFC report. “The recent experience of the BVI as a country has highlighted that both of the heads of these departments have a level of responsibility to execute the laws of the BVI and the mandates and policies of the territory.”
Mr. Samuel also said that VISR recently held a Maritime and Coastguard Agency mock audit examination and found 19 issues.
Fifty percent of them were related to legislation, he added.
In consequence, starting in mid-2022, VISR will work with the Attorney General’s Chambers on a “total comprehensive revamp” of the VI’s maritime legislation in order to ensure that existing laws meet international conventions, he said.
According to Mr. Samuel, the report stated, the process will “correct 50 percent of the findings where the legislations were missing, confusing and conflicting as these were the challenges the shipping registry faced.”
Mr. Samuel assumed leadership of the agency in 2020 during a major push to earn more revenue and expand its reach.
Last April, Premier Andrew Fahie said VISR had raised less than $1 million in annual revenue in recent years, but that government hoped ongoing changes at the agency would boost that number to $15 million over the next five to seven years.
At the SFC hearing, Mr. Fahie called VISR’s recent work “intense.”
“But for the first time in recent time, we are seeing where we could receive great revenue in projections from the shipping registry, as we are working together to get back into the marine industry,” he said, according to the SFC report.
The report, however, did not mention any update on the agency’s revenue.
It also did not mention any update on the VISR’s plan to become a statutory body called the VI Shipping and Maritime Authority.
During a presentation last April, Mr. Samuel described the planned statutory body as “somewhat of a commercial business model within a public administrative framework.”