The West Coast has the only dedicated salvage vessels in the United States. Located in Astoria, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, these vessels offer excellent salvage work platforms and workshops. Due to the low level of salvage activity, the vessels have skeleton crews and rely on on-call personnel for on-scene salvage. The continued availability of these vessels, in the light of current economic conditions and their specialized use, is unlikely.
On the West Coast, with its deep-water ports, lightering is not a primary activity. The major towing and tug companies in the region provide significant resources to support lightering needs in the event of a casualty. The substantial tanker traffic on the coast adds to the availability of emergency storage and offloading capability.
In general, the salvage capability and readiness of the United States appears to have improved in the decade since 1982, accelerated as a result of OPA 90 and related state and industry actions. The improvement has not taken the form of a resurgence of the traditional salvage industry, with large salvage vessels, permanent stores of equipment, and a cadre of trained personnel. Rather, the increased capability stems mainly from the availability of fly-away and prepositioned stockpiles of equipment and the development of networks of salvage equipment and expertise. Also of note is the aggressive role the Coast Guard now assumes to ensure timely response to major accidents. As was evident in the response to the 1993 accident in Tampa Bay, Florida, the Coast Guard is not reticent about taking charge and participating actively in salvage when, in the opinion of agency officials, other action is not proceeding at a level adequate to address the risk involved.
Current resources, which were not available in the 1980s, include strategically deployed response assets provided by oil spill responders. These assets include dedicated response vessels and barges. Although they are not designed to perform salvage, they can provide assistance quickly due to their prepositioning near major shipping areas.
The level of salvage activity in the United States continues to be insufficient to support traditional salvage companies economically. As a result, salvage has become a secondary business for salvors and other marine contractors. The recent development of a system of retainers would improve the financial status of some salvage providers, but by itself may not provide enough incentive for companies to maintain dedicated vessels and crews awaiting offshore casualties. Moreover, companies that can afford such investments may be reluctant to have often-unemployed assets that produce only a limited return. In other words, with marine casualties in the United States occurring at a historic low rate, there is not enough salvage activity to make salvage a paying proposition for dedicated companies or to encourage investment in dedicated salvage equipment and facilities. Furthermore, the level of salvage activity is not sufficient to attract and train future salvors.
In sum, although the salvage industry in the United States appears to be on an upswing—at least temporarily and in part as a result of OPA 90—the long-term prognosis may still be bleak, unless ways can be found to train salvors and stimulate salvage-related business activity.