Seafarers boarding vessels flying Panamanian Flag are now subject to secure an upgraded version of the Seaman’s Book in line with Panama Maritime Authority’s (PMA) Modernization Project. However, to avoid the trauma and hassle on the part of seafarers and shipping companies, PMA is considering inputs from the Philippine maritime sector to develop agreeable working solutions for the implementation of the new system.

Last 9th of June 2009 at La Azotea Ballroom, NYK-Fil, Intramuros, Manila, the Panama Maritime Authority, with the assistance of Panamanian Ambassador Juan Felipe Pitty, conducted a symposium wherein they provided a presentation on the said project, and solicited inputs to reach decisions regarding its implementing procedures that will be amenable and comfortable to all. A total of 123 representatives coming from various ship-manning companies were in participation.

According to Ambassador Pitty, the project aims to make PMA documentation more secure and compliant to high-standards of safety and security regulations around the world. It incorporates biometric data such as fingerprint, photograph and signature, and also electronic data entry to ensure a more updated database.

“The project’s thrust is to make things paperless, more efficient, and more swift, in order for applicants and their companies to comply with necessities; internationally and commercially in a quicker, cheaper and more secure manner,” said the Ambassador. Likewise, the project is perceived as a means to counter problems that occurred in the past such as terrorism, incorrect identification, and detention and delay of vessels.

It also aims to provide, as a material output, a seaman’s book that contains high security features. These features include watermarks having the Panama Maritime emblem, ultraviolet marks, pre-numbered pages that contain laser printed conical hole, control numbers reactant to UV light and matches laminated film, and unique cover sheet that resists moisture, extreme temperatures and water exposure. The laminated film also has security characteristics like hidden images that will only be visible with special crystals, image generated with micro letter only visible through magnifying glasses, hologram, and dimensional barcode that contains fingerprints and basic data.

Upon application in the new system, the seafarer will obtain a personal identification number that he would be using for the whole duration that he would be working on board Panamanian flag vessels. His profile data also need not be reentered except only when the seafarer wishes to update it.

For the time being, the modernization project is at its early implementation phase. 3 terminals have been furnished to help capture seafarer’s biometrics. However, as the projects remains to be in its initial stage, the terminals are being trial-tested to determine the number applicants each machine could handle per day. In so doing, PMA would be able to calculate the number of machines to be added to facilitate the applications and avoid creating backlogs of data and information. In the context of which, they are requiring seafarers to physically present themselves to the consulate upon application under the new system. The complete procedure of application entails: first, data entry for both biometrics and documents; second, assessment for verification and qualification purposes; and third, issuance of the new seaman’s book. The normal processing time is anticipated to consume a maximum of 15 minutes per applicant. The cost of the application will suffer no changes in reference to the current rate.

As determined upon dialogue, users of the old system or holders of the old Panamanian seaman’s book will have an option to apply for immediate renewal or to utilize their current seaman’s book until it expires. Hence, old seaman’s book expiring within the next five years (until 2014) will remain valid as indicated except only if PMA imposes a new and definite deadline. Upon expiration of which, holders are then required to apply under the new system.

On the other hand, PMA wishes to receive, in writing, inputs or ideas as to how long will it take for the sector to be comfortable with the new system so as for them to deliberate on other considerations. In view of which, PMA, according to Ambassador Pitty, will allow both the old and the new system to co-exist as long as necessary. He added that this is to afford users the availability of the system that they know, the system that they trust, and the system that works for them until everyone is familiar and compliant with the new system and until the new system becomes fully operational. “The current procedure is not being phased-out; is not being eliminated. It will continue for however long necessary ‘till we reach a working resolution that is win-win; that is agreeable to the Administration and to you as the users in order for us to move together,” said the Ambassador. The philosophy for this consideration is, according to the ambassador, partnership. “The days of imposition from the administration are long over. It is in partnership; and a partnership that’s based on trust and respect… that we’ve developed over the past five years working together and which will continue… onwards into the future… that we make decisions that will affect the maritime sector,” declared the Ambassador.

According to PMA, the last stage of implementation of the project would entail less amount of effort from the users. PMA aspires to work in close coordination with authorized training centers and manning companies to fully implement the system. They look forward for transactions to be done electronically. The perfect picture would be when training centers and manning companies are able to gather data needed in-house; data such as biometrics and personal information, when same companies obtain access to the PMA system for inputs of these data through what was called as Personal Key Identification (PKI) that will be provided by PMA, and when the mode of payment can be done through credit cards. These and other facilities that will ensure security and the development of procedures that will be hassle-free are the direction to which PMA wishes to move towards through and by its modernization project.