The Miami Herald has an informative story out on the loss of the American freighter El Faro and its crew of 33 off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. A key point that shouldn’t be overlooked is the role that American protectionism played in the tragedy:

The El Faro was at the cutting edge of cargo-ship design and technology — that is, when it was built in 1975. Then named the Puerto Rico (and later the Northern Lights), it was among the first of the class of ships known as Ro/Ro vessels because they’re designed to allow cargo vehicles to be driven directly onto the ship, rolled on and rolled off.

But that was four decades ago. Ships, like cars and airplanes, wear out over time. And although their technology can be updated, it’s more difficult to patch up the accumulated stress and fatigue suffered by their hulls.

“I was surprised at the age of the vessel,” said Max Hardberger, a maritime lawyer and former freighter captain. “At 40, that’s twice its (expected) service life. There are not many (industry safety-standard monitors) that will approve a vessel of that age.”

One thing that may have kept the El Faro from the scrapyard was a controversial law regulating the trade route it served, between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. The 95-year-old American law mandates that all seagoing trade between U.S. ports must be served by American-built ships.

But there aren’t so many of those these days. High U.S. labor costs have moved the industry elsewhere. “All the ships are being made in China,” said Hardberger, a sharp critic of the law. “China is pumping them out. The quality is getting better and better, and the U.S. just can’t compete. … So older (American) ships have to continue sailing.”