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Weather passes over New Orleans as ships and tug boats travel down the Mississippi River, Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

Despite a decline in shipping and the economy, the river pilots who shepherd vessels from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Canal Street in New Orleans want a 28% pay bump to nearly $700,000 annually.

The Crescent River Port Pilots Association Inc., called CRPPA and based in Belle Chasse, is one of the most politically active trade associations in the state and it argues its pilots should be paid as much as the river pilots in charge of vessels going between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as other shipping pilots at ports around the country.

CRPPA pilots are paid an average $526,958 annually and are seeking an increase to an average annual $697,000. The pilots also want the authority to increase their number from 122 pilots to 150 to combat fatigue that could lead to accidents. Additionally, the pilots want a regular cost of living adjustment.

“Such an increase in compensation would allow CRPPA’s pilots to achieve compensation parity with NOBRA’s pilots as has been previously contemplated by the Louisiana Supreme Court, all while servicing more vessels, performing more vessel movements and doing so at a lower cost per mile than NOBRA,” the CRPPA filing stated, noting a 1987 high court ruling that requires pay parity between the pilot organizations.

The New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, called NOBRA and based Metairie, guides vessels from Canal Street to Baton Rouge, and their pilots are paid an average $696,399 annually.

The Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association handles the first 105 miles of the Mississippi River, “one of the most difficult and treacherous water routes in North America” because the waterway is relatively narrow with shifting passages, sand bars and downriver currents. Pilots climb aboard the vessel and personally direct navigation going up and down the river.

An actual decision on the pay raise request could be a year away.

The Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission voted Thursday to select a special master off a list of retired judges to review the technical issues and take testimony, then make a recommendation to inform the commission's vote on the pilots' request. The commission also voted to hire an expert on compensation to review the filing.

Pleasure cruises opposed the pilot's request, writing Monday that the requested pay hike “is both untimely and unreasonable as it disregards the present economic realities of the shipping industry.”

Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, and Norwegian Cruise Line all departed weekly, often two at a time, from the wharfs near Julia Street in New Orleans. But the cruise ship industry has been shut down since March and won’t be able to sail again until October, at least, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pleasure cruises out of New Orleans are a major business not only for Louisiana — about 1 million passengers, $477 million in direct spending and nearly 9,000 jobs — but also for the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association, whose pilots essentially drive the vessels while on the Mississippi River.

The cruise line association added that once allowed to resume operations, the lines will have fewer passengers, therefore less revenues. “The proposed increase in pilot fees will have a severe and adverse impact on the timely recovery of the cruise industry,” wrote Bradley Rose, associate general counsel for the Cruise Lines International Association, based in Washington, D.C.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is in charge of the state's tourism efforts, backed the pay request as "both reasonable and necessary to ensure the safe passage of our tourists, and the continued success of our state." Tourism is Louisiana's fourth largest employer and relies on timeliness both to maximize spending by cruise passengers but to keep word-of-mouth marketing positive, he wrote. Nothing dampens an enjoyable experience as a long delay because of problems on the river.

An estimated $275 million in economic activity would be lost daily, if an accident closed the lower Mississippi. "A delay in the arrival or departure of goods can negatively impact the operations of sellers, buyers, carriers, ports and more," wrote Andrew Cooper, senior vice president of Crescent Towing Co., based in New Orleans. He also said the pilots' requests were reasonable.

Large oceangoing vessels also handle some very toxic cargoes, including crude oil and various chemicals, along with grain, coal and other commodities destined for international markets. 

The Louisiana Chemical Association, a trade group that represents manufacturing plants along the Mississippi, filed an intervention Monday and asked for the hearing the commission granted Thursday, as did the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Neither filing stated whether either group opposed the request.

“We do. Make no mistake. We oppose the request,” Greg Bowser, executive director of the Louisiana Chemical Association, told The Advocate/Times-Picayune on Wednesday. “In order to object to the pay raise, you have to intervene and ask for a contested docket, otherwise the pay raise is approved automatically.”

Bowser pointed out that the number of ships plying the Mississippi River had decreased 8.5% from 2018 to 2019. And the early numbers showed another 7% decrease in 2020, though those numbers could change. (The Crescent River Port Pilots point to a different set of numbers that show total tonnage having increased from 767 billion tons in 2013 to 910 billion tons in 2019.)

Oil and Gas Association President Tyler Gray told the commission Thursday: “While we recognize the important role that pilots play in the safe operations on the Mississippi River, this request comes at the worst possible time when the oil and gas industry is struggling due to global economic pressure as companies are going bankrupt with layoffs across a broad range of sectors and families and employers struggling through the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Both Bowser and Gray are members of the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission.

The Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission was created by act of the 2004 Louisiana Legislature to establish rates and fees charged by licensed river pilots operating on the Mississippi and Calcasieu rivers. It consists of four representatives nominated by industry associations, four representatives of the river pilots' associations, and three at-large appointees.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.