Safety standards must apply to all ships that sail to US
Long before a Feb. 10 engine room fire converted the Carnival Triumph into a floating portable toilet, there was a need for effective regulation of cruise ships regarding the environment, health and safety.
Carnival, the world's largest cruise line, is incorporated in Panama. But its principal offices are in Miami and its ships sail under the Bahamian flag. Many cruise lines are organized in similar ways, and the regulatory regime is anything but consistent.
Ships that enter American ports can be inspected by the Coast Guard, but at sea they are not under the jurisdiction of any particular national regulatory regime. The United Nations' International Maritime Organization maintains standards, but it has no enforcement power.
Even though the Carnival Triumph left Galveston, Texas, with 3,100 American passengers aboard, and eventually was towed into Mobile, Ala., the investigation of the engine room fire will be conducted by the Bahamas Maritime Authority rather than the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The United States is the world's largest cruise market. About 13 million passengers embarked from U.S. ports in 2012.
Congress should use that market as leverage to establish a more consistent regulatory protocol for ships that visit U.S. ports. The rules should require online posting of each ship's safety, sanitation and environmental compliance records. Generally, ships that originate trips from U.S. ports should face the same regulatory requirements that would apply to any ship under a U.S. flag.