May 2012

Onboard Whistleblowers
By Tim Akpinar  
Reprinted with permission of Work Boat - To visit, go to Commercial Vessel Links
and find Workboat Magazine at the top of the page.

Onboard Whistelblowers
Tim Akpinar

Whistleblowers have played a major role in recent environmental cases by the U.S. Department
of Justice for unlawful oil discharges and violations of ballast water procedures.

A whistleblower is usually a member of the crew who reports a known or suspected violation to
the government. Special laws, known as whistleblower laws, generally protect them. The Act to
Prevent Pollution from Ships goes a step further by allowing monetary rewards. The court, at
its discretion, may give the person who reports the violation up to half of the penalty

This type of incentive system is controversial. Shipping interests oppose the way that these
programs are being used. They argue that the rewards defeat the purpose of environmental
compliance by encouraging crewmembers to act as “bounty hunters” instead of diligent
employees. Vessel operators complain that some crewmembers gather evidence with the zeal of
criminal investigators. This creates an atmosphere where people can be motivated to build
cases that yield hefty financial rewards, rather than “pulling on the same oar” to make sure
that unlawful discharges are prevented. Some vessel operators see it as “biting the hand that
feeds you.”

On the flip side, supporters point out that whistleblower laws encourage the disclosure of
illegal shipboard activities. They argue that without this protection, crewmembers would be
afraid to come forward for fear of reprisal or job loss. They argue that it’s a win-win
situation, where the prosecuting nation is awarded compensation for environmental damages and
crewmembers that “do the right thing” are rewarded with money for their troubles. But
opponents say vessel operators are in a lose-lose situation, where the chances for genuinely
complying with environmental regulations are being undermined. Vessel owners come out looking
like villains, and they can lose a lot of money too.

Also, an incentive program that rewards whistleblowers can create an atmosphere of suspicion.
If you’re working on a vessel and a shipmate is gunning for a nice reward, your license and
your freedom could become casualties in the process.