I'm doing some research into questions surrounding the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906, and thought I'd experiment by throwing this out there.

For context, the 31 biggest dredging vessels were not built in America, and thus cannot be used in America by law. We only have a small number of less capable vessels, and they often get redirected to short-term emergency tasks. This is preventing us from doing a bunch of very valuable things, like repairing or expanding ports, which end up taking much more time and money or not happening at all.

This podcast is recommended. You can find a transcript here. They claim that there's no way America will be able to have such capacity for at least decades. I want to verify that (and also check if any other claims here don't ring true)?

As an alternative to repealing the Dredge Act (which I'm exploring and planning to write about) another alternate would be to build world-class dredging vehicles here in America, such that they could be used. Before assuming that this is impossible, and to have a straight answer, what would happen if someone with deep pockets tried to commission a world-class dredging ship that would qualify? Could be done? Are there other impossible barriers to solve? How much would it cost and how much more would that be than building it elsewhere? How long would it take? 

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

4 Answers sorted by

The largest dredgers in the world were built by a Spanish company, Construcciones Navales del Norte (CNdN), but the company has apparently been dissolved as of a few years ago. This source claims they had sub-250 employees. Their shipyard was purchased last year by an industrial real estate firm.

So here's an idea. The US-based Manson Construction Co., is currently building a 15,000 cubic yard dredger which will be the biggest in the USA. It's about 25% the size of the biggest dredgers. They hire some of the former employees from CNdN, so that they can get green cards. This gives MCC the expertise to build even bigger dredgers. It's an employee-owned company, so it can't be purchased outright and made to do this, but perhaps they can be convinced by the prospect of a big dredger commission?

Another large dredger, the Vasco da Gama, has about 80% of the capacity of the record-setting Leif Eiriksson and cost around $120 million. So if we use that as a ballpark, perhaps we can get a world-class dredger built in America for around $200 million?

It's a good data point - we can pin the Vasco de Gama at $120mm. The question is how we get from there to $200mm for a similar USA-made product, and how long that would take - presumably a lot longer than it took to build the Gama since you'd have to bring the talent together and also build the construction capacity. Can we narrow this down more?

I do like the idea of hiring the former employees of CNdN if they're available, and there'd presumably be enough support to get them visas. 

Also, there's this obscure podcast episode [https://anchor.fm/john-konrad/episodes/How-We-Can-Fix-American-Shipyards-e2gd58/a-a653og] ("How We Can Fix American Shipyards") that seems thematically relevant. No transcript available unfortunately. Here's my paraphrase of Captain John Konrad's list of problems and solutions. Perhaps it's worth reaching out [https://www.linkedin.com/in/gcaptain/] to him? 1. Segmentation in the industry. All the different ship-building types, regulators, and financial players are geographically separated and professionally overspecialized. He thinks the industry needs more resources for cross-pollination, including things like his own podcast. He encourages his American colleagues to go to more different conferences, more going to international conferences, more travel. He's startled to hear that the director of a major US shipyard has never even been to Korea, the biggest, where the most productive shipyards are located. He recommends the book "Let There Be A Shipyard. [https://www.amazon.com/There-Shipyard-Sung-Hyuk-Hwang/dp/190533124X]" This book appears to be out of print. Maybe the rights to it could be purchased and it could be released as a free ebook? 2. Wrong assumptions. People think Korean labor is cheaper, that they work longer, that US unions are to blame, or that steel's cheaper in Korea. The podcaster denies that Koreans are paid more or work longer, and that Korean unions are stronger than American unions. He thinks US management is worse at dealing with unions in the USA. He says steel's only cheaper in Korea because they buy more, which is because they build more ships. 3. Quality issues. He says Korea does build some badly-built ships, but that they also build great ships. It just depends on what the buyer demands. Same as in the USA. 4. Management styles. He says the USA could still go a long ways in terms of adopting good management prac
Interesting podcast, I reached out to him since there's no downside to trying. Your summary seems accurate.
The biggest dredger, the Leif Eiriksson, had 28% greater capacity than the VdG, so we might try pinning a Leif-beating dredger at at least $154 million. This paper [https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1755-1315/972/1/012014/pdf] has a table comparing US domestic vs. foreign ship construction costs: The Leif Eiriksson was 46373 GT. So at foreign shipyard costs, it could have cost anywhere from $23 million ($500/GT) to $231 million ($5000/GT). It looks like in the USA, we'd need to increase that to perhaps closer to $280 million at the high end. Given that US costs appear to be about 1.5-2.5x that of foreign shipyards, that would give an alternative estimate of about $231-$385 million for a US-built Leif Eiriksson. This paper [http://www.stratosolar.com/uploads/5/6/7/1/5671050/35_ship_consruction_cost_estimating.pdf] on shipbuilding costs makes labor seem to be a relatively negligible portion of the total cost of building a ship, though I state that with very low confidence. I think you'd need to convince the investor that this large dredging ship would ultimately find demand. Building it would not be competitively priced on the world scale, so the business logic is to satisfy unmet US demand. Making that business case seems important for justifying such a project. I have to imagine there are hurdles in terms of willingness to invest in infrastructure and regulatory barriers. The US ship building industry [https://www.ibisworld.com/united-states/market-research-reports/ship-building-industry/] is around $30 billion, while the worldwide [https://www.statista.com/statistics/1102252/size-of-the-global-shipbuilding-market/] industry is about $150 billion, so we're about 20% of the global industry. By contrast, we're about 40% of the global automotive industry (US [https://www.statista.com/topics/1721/us-automotive-industry/#dossierKeyfigures] vs world [https://www.ibisworld.com/global/market-size/global-car-automobile-sales/]). This suggests to me that the
My model of ships vs. cars is that we have a very high-value domestic car market and shipping cars is expensive, so it makes sense to build those here, whereas there is no good reason (other than regulations) to build ships here rather than Europe or Asia, which made it easy for us to become uncompetitive there.
The story which is being told about the related Jones Act consistently suggests that American commercial shipbuilding missed a critical industry shift in the 70s, of which I have yet to track down any concrete details. My best guess based on the other problems mentioned at the same time - by which I literally mean shortest word distance between a problem with operation costs and this allusion - is industrial automation, both in the manufacture and operation of the ships. I think this is plausible because the automotive industry was having the same fight, with the Big Three passing on automated manufacturing until the 1980s due to a combination of short-sighted corporate leadership and union opposition. Since the shipping industry was not under increasing pressure from things like Japanese imports due to the laws, it would at least be consistent for them to have made the transition later, and fail to keep abreast of the newest developments.

Does Manson Construction Co actually have access to a shipyard that's big enough to build a dredger that's 4x bigger than what they want to build? 

From the podcast it sounded like shipyards that are big enough might be the constraint.

Yeah that's one of my main concerns as well as far as just building a single dredger.
There's a drydock [https://www.marinelink.com/article/ship-repair/portlands-business-strengthened-cascade-481] in Portland, OR long enough to accommodate up to a 366m ship, and the Leif Eiriksson is 213m. I don't know about Manson Construction Co, but it seems like if the shipyard size is the constraint, there are places in the USA that can accommodate.

One interesting aspect of this is that it's currently hard to understand what the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906 actually says. At the time of this writing, Wikipedia has no page for it. 

When it comes to byzantine regulations like this, simply having better documentation might be useful for moving the regulation in a more sensible way. 

I  believe it is codified at 46 USC 55109, which can be found here:


Here it is in the US Code on the US House's website. [https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title46-section55109&num=0&edition=prelim]
What does "Unless documented as a vessel of the United States" mean?
https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/9 [https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/9] Sounds like it just means if we're having problems with dredges it might not really be an issue of building them. I think maybe the question is what is preventing a business, person or government agency from buying such ships? I might get with governmental actors approvals might be highly biased towards US built. Then given the problem with size (and likely willingness to pay economically viable prices -- we do a REALLY BAD job with this type of maintenance activity due to wanting to spend the money on more visible or "profitable" activities with more immediate returns) having local ship builders to make the required ships is under provided.
2[comment deleted]2mo

AFAIK this is basically a nothingburger, but a bill to repeal the Foreign Dredge Act was introduced in December by Sen. Lee of Utah.

Be aware that the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) will need to classify the vessel, and if they have not done so for a dredge of the size described for some time then it can be expected that this will add to a time estimate for completion.

The physics is not hard and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) manuals are good enough that they are used in various countries to educate young engineer's on coastal soil dynamics (Hi!), so if discussions of green cards are on the table then the right people within the US are being overlooked.

ABS certified steel is manufactured in America (of course but worth noting).

Manufacturing huge ships is a labour intensive operation and the bottleneck I suspect will be cost of Labor. Keppel Fels or Jurong can build comparable vessels for the likes of Valaris (the DPS-1 ne Atwood Condor is a Singapore build which is in my neighbourhood now) for peanuts because they employ thousands on thousands of serfs. Constructing a similar sized vessel with mechanical systems integrated in America would require a bypassing labour by investing hugely in automated fabrication plant and methods, on a large plot of land near a large port.

I expect Elon Musk could do it. Make the dredging company a subsidiary of the boring company and buy a plot of industrial portside land and build a marine giga-factory. Maybe Bezos will feel competitive enough to do it first.

A dollar-value answer doesn't quite address the question of whether the correct way to answer "we can do it" is by spending a fortune on American labour (seems like a good thing, pays mortgages) or a fortune on new and likely novel large scale autated fabrication processes (also seems like a good thing, pays different people's mortgages and possibly adds to current state of human knowledge and industry).

9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:22 PM

An interesting rebuttal to the idea that tariffs incentivize local production.

If you can't import X, then you can either build it yourself or do without. If developing the capacity required to build it yourself is too hard, you do without. The potential users of X will invest in alternatives.  Those with competencies to build X will move away.

The end result is not only that you destroy the local market for X, but you also actively invest in bad alternatives to X that will make it even harder to get an X market going than it would have been if you'd never banned it in the first place.

For example, imagine a country that bans car imports, in the hope of incentivizing a local car manufacturing industry. One possible outcome is that the locals figure out lots of alternatives to driving cars: they ride motorcycles, take the bus, walk, bike, travel by boat, or ride horses. Perhaps they invest far less in roads and gas stations than they would if buying cars was easy.

Perhaps there are enough locals with the skills and resources to start a car company. But the car ban is incentivizing the locals to find alternatives to car ownership and to avoid investing in car infrastructure. Seeing this, the potential car manufacturers either choose a different product to produce, or move to another country where there's more of a market for their skills.

Now, the country lacks the expertise to start a car manufacture even if it eliminated the ban on imports, and its citizens are invested in alternatives to cars that has reduced some of their demand for cars. While eliminating the tariff may turn the tide and increase demand for cars, it seems like the net effect of such a tariff on the local car industry has been negative.

It's not to say that it would always play out like this, but it seems like that's what must have happened in America with the dredging ship industry?

One possible outcome is that the locals figure out lots of alternatives to driving cars: they ride motorcycles, take the bus, walk, bike, travel by boat, or ride horses.

In practice, what happens is that the locals just import cars illegally, leading to a huge black market for cars and auto repair. An auto industry is very hard to set up, but cars are still so vastly superior to other forms of transportation that people will literally drive cars across hundreds of miles of desert, then fix them up locally in order to resell them at a profit.

Suggesting in turn that the dynamic I outlined is especially relevant in the case of hard-to-hide products, like gigantic dredging ships :D

sorry to be a rube, but.. why is dredging important? I would guess to make shipping lanes and harbors accessible to larger ships, but is shipping lane and harbor capacity a serious bottleneck? Is dredging capacity one? Is it something else?

This isn't worth its own post, so I'll tack it on to the front of this one: in normal US parlance, a vessel that conducts dredging operations is called a "dredge."  Every comment referring to a "dredger" is like fingernails on a chalkboard inside my brain.  (Not you, Randomized, Controlled.)

Answering your question: Efficient shipping requires a deeper channel than normally exists naturally, and a dredge is used to create a channel of the desired dimensions.  And, of course, since it's not a natural river bed nature keeps trying to make it one so you have to keep doing it periodically as the channel fills in with sediments transported from upstream.  Most dredging operations are maintenance dredging to keep this channel open.  It's basically a routine maintenance task, like mowing the grass (mowing the bottom of the river?).  To give you an idea of the scale of how much goes on you can see the federal government's contracting efforts for dredging here (live page, so it'll be different every day):


In the US, there's a mix of government vessels and contract dredges owned by private firms that do this work.  The contracts on the linked page would represent the effort required over and above the US Army's own dredges, and local port authorities will contract for work required (over and above their own vessels if they own one, of course.)

You also have larger construction dredging operations, when creating a new port or a larger shipping channel.  It's often more complex than maintenance dredging, because if a channel has already been created you can typically assume that only moving sands and silts are required to keep that channel open.  With a new channel, or deepening/widening an existing one, you may have to do stuff like remove rock ledges, which requires a far greater level of effort.

This is a long-winded way to say, yeah, dredging is important to make harbors accessible.  We'd be hurting if we didn't have capacity to keep up what we have, and we can't expand ports without enough dredging capacity to do the work required to create new channels for the harbor.

It's not only Wikipedia. Every article I have referenced in my draft post uses the term 'dredger' so I had no idea this was an issue. But happy to make the change for the full post, and I do sympathize with your pain. 

This isn't worth its own post, so I'll tack it on to the front of this one: in normal US parlance, a vessel that conducts dredging operations is called a "dredge."  Every comment referring to a "dredger" is like fingernails on a chalkboard inside my brain.  

Wikipedia does use the term dredger:

Dredging is the excavation of material from a water environment. Possible reasons for dredging include improving existing water features; reshaping land and water features to alter drainage, navigability, and commercial use; constructing dams, dikes, and other controls for streams and shorelines; and recovering valuable mineral deposits or marine life having commercial value. In all but a few situations the excavation is undertaken by a specialist floating plant, known as a dredger

"According to Wikipedia": the three most trusted words in information!

In all seriousness, according to the talk page it's a UK/US language difference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Dredging#dredge_versus_dredger  I didn't actually know that before, and I'm glad I actually added the "US parlance" qualification to my last comment, out of the vague wonder that there might be somewhere it turned out to be used.

I will say that this is a pretty firm usage if you're in the US, though.  I've only tangentially worked with dredges (I've been on board one once--a hopper dredge for that one--and I've done one project where I had to design onshore structures to receive the spoil pipe from a pipeline dredge.)  Between all of the work discussions about that last project and various sidebar/water cooler discussions about dredging in general over the years, though, the term "dredger" wasn't used once that I can recall.

Now that I think about it, in the discussions for the pipeline dredge project, when discussing the vessel we were designing for the common way to refer to it was "the Dredge [Shipname]" or "Dredge [Shipname]."  I don't think use of the definite article is consistent when talking about a dredge, either for those project discussions or in general.  Thinking further as I'm writing this, using "Dredge" as a prefix for the vessel name when discussing a specific dredge seemed somewhat common, too, though not universal.  This would all be trying to remember from pre-COVID, though, since that would have all been water cooler/going to coffee talk which obviously hasn't been happening for the past couple years, and I've not been involved with a dredging project recently which would have actual work conversation that would have occurred via teleconference.

At any rate, that's all just explaining further that "dredger" is uncommon in the US, and I'd use "dredge" if you're going to have discussions about how to proceed for a US audience.  If you don't have a British accent, you're going to come off as the guy who only knows from a quick Wikipedia skim.

You can read the Wiki article I just wrote and follow the cited sources to get the lowdown!