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Angry Fishermen Sink Mothball Fleet
by James Dunnigan
October 6, 2011

The reserve fleet of support and warships maintained for the U.S. Navy since World War II, are down to about 174 ships in three locations, and most of them may be gone within a decade. At its peak, in 1950, 2,277 ships were in this National Defense Reserve Fleet, moored at eight locations. But this is not just another relic of World War II fading away. Since the late 1940s, when most of the original mothball fleet was laid up, more and more ships built after World War II have been put into reserve status. Moreover, it’s become more common to keep some of the ships ready for quick (days or a week or so) activation. This is the separate Ready Reserve Force.

It was in 1946 that the U.S. established the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The ships were anchored in sheltered waters, up a river, where relatively new ships (mostly cargo and tankers, but including warships as well) could be tied up, and kept in readiness for a national emergency. Each location had a crew of trained men to keep the ships in working order. The engines were turned on periodically, and the electrical systems checked as well. During the Korean War, 540 ships were activated. During Vietnam, 172 were activated. During the 1991 Gulf war, 79 ships were activated. Over a thousand were activated for other emergencies, like in 1956, when the Suez Canal was closed by war, and more shipping was needed. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nine ships were activated.

But now age is catching up with most of the ships, which are not worth the expense of keeping them ready for activation. It's cheaper and more effective to just charter commercial ships. Only 44 ships of recent vintage, especially 26 "roll on/roll off" ones, are kept in readiness for immediate use. The great "Ghost Fleet" was an artifact of World War II, when thousands of new ships were built in a few years. When the war ended, naval and merchant fleets could not absorb them all. Rather than scrap so many nearly new ships; the "Mothball Fleet" was created. Eventually these unused ships grew old, and no longer useful. Most of the warships were gone within a few decades after the war. But many of the cargo ships, including some added after the war, lingered on until the end of the century. There are still some more recently decommissioned warships tied up alongside the merchantmen. But eventually, all ships age out of the mothball fleet and are broken up for scrap. A few of the warships (and a smaller number of old merchant vessels) are turned into museum ships.

Now, the Ghost Fleet is rapidly fading into memory. It is being replaced by the Ready Reserve Force. But even the Ready Reserve Force is not welcome to a growing number of people near the anchorages. That’s because maintenance on these ships requires repainting, and that means a lot of the old (and toxic to aquatic life) paint falls (in the form of chips) into the water. The paint is poison to sea creatures, on purpose, in order to keep barnacles and such from attaching themselves to the hull. This is all well and good on the high seas. But if you tie up a bunch of these seagoing ships in the same place for years, the chips of paint falling into the water ruins the local fishing. The government has long been under pressure to find a solution for this problem.


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