Bar pilots, who steer ships into port, say their earnings are down, though pay still approaches $400,000
John Upton | The Bay Citizen, 2011.06.11
The nearly 60 bar pilots who navigate commercial ships through San Francisco Bay might be earning an average of $530,000 a year each by 2015.
Shippers warn that the amount is excessive and could drive commerce and shipping traffic to other regions.
The bitter dispute over bar piloting rates has pitted international shipping companies against the crack seamen who navigate their vessels in and out of the Bay Area’s often treacherous ports.
Each side accuses the other of greed as they squabble over spoils of the multitrillion-dollar international shipping industry. The spat could reach the California Legislature next week.
The bar pilots, who are independent contractors, take over commercial ship masters’ duties and charge flat fees to shipping companies to navigate large vessels between the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay’s ports, docks and refineries.
Rates are based on a variety of factors, like where the bar pilot boards and debarks. With their pooled fuel and commercial rent costs rising while shipping traffic remains sluggish after the economic downturn, the pilots argue that they are due for a raise.
Their average earnings fell 20 percent over four years, to $393,000 last year. They are pushing to increase rates by 12 percent over the next four years and to add transportation, rent and fuel surcharges.
“They’re looking at their own costs; they’re looking at what other pilot groups around the country make and the fact that there hasn’t been a rate increase in five years,” said Charlie Goodyear, a spokesman for San Francisco Bar Pilots.
Shipping companies that spent $34.5 million last year on bar pilots working in San Francisco Bay and connected waterways want the rates frozen.
A 2009 study found that it cost more to pilot a container ship into the Port of Oakland than into Long Beach, New York or seven other locations studied.
“We’re concerned with the overall viability and competitiveness of our Bay Area ports,” said Michael Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a group that represents shipping companies and marine terminal owners.
After a series of hearings, the Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun, a state agency, in late May recommended rate changes that promise bar pilots a fraction of what they had sought.
Under the recommendations, which Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, Democrat of San Francisco, said she would introduce as legislation, bar pilots could increase their rates 1.5 percent annually for four years and charge some new fees.
“Foreign-owned companies would pay the increase,” Ma said. “Nearly all of the ships that are coming in right now are foreign owned and operated.”
But it is difficult to determine exactly what the rate changes would mean for the bar pilots.
The shipping companies calculate that the pilots will be earning $530,000 a year by 2015 if the rate change is adopted, based partly on an anticipated increase in ship traffic.
The pilots dispute the companies’ assumptions and say the new formula would mean they would be taking home just $432,000 by 2015.
The bar pilots commission cannot say which figure is accurate.
“No one has a crystal ball,” said the commission’s executive director, Allen Garfinkle.