Nassau, Bahamas — This small island nation off the Florida coast is making a strong bid to put a large part of the world's commercial fleet under its flag, especially American ships.
And the chances of success have improved dramatically since a 1980 coup in Liberia that overthrew President William Tolbert.
Liberia and Panama rank as the leading nations in ''flags of convenience'' shipping registries, which are open to noncitizens on a no-tax or low-tax basis without any restrictions on crew nationality. But the Bahamas, which ranks in the top 10 of such nations, is now making a bid to raise its standing.
''Although no vessels have transferred as yet from Liberian registry, a number of those that would have gone there have come to the Bahamas,'' says Capt. Alan Morris, Bahamian deputy director of maritime affairs.
From 63 ships in 1979 of 52,877 gross tons, the number by the end of March had risen to 96, totaling 446,157 gross tons. Of those, 33, amounting to 365,000 gross tons, were registered since the Liberian coup.
To speed things up, several changes have been made in the Bahamian Merchant Shipping Act to remove obstacles barring growth as an international ship registration center. The purpose is to put the country on equal footing with Liberia and Panama.
For an economy already tuned to easing the tax load for thousands of foreign companies, the income from ship registration fees could mean millions of dollars more in revenue.
One of the most important changes grants foreign shipowners the right to return their Bahamian-registered ships to the effective control of their own governments in time of national emergency.
The US Defense Department, for instance, regards American-owned ships in open-registry countries as critically important to national security.
New legislation also simplifies the transfer of ships to and from Bahamian registry, preserves the priority of mortgages in the changeover to the Bahamian flag, and is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes in manning requirements resulting from new ship design and technology.
A British colony until 1973, the islands switched to open registry in 1976. But world recession and critical flaws in the country's new maritime law proved drawbacks in attracting enough large bulk carriers to make the industry viable.
The decision to amend the shipping act was prompted by numerous inquiries from US shipowners in the wake of the Liberian coup.
Open-registry shipping now represents 30 percent of the global merchant fleet , with the United States, Hong Kong, Greece, Japan, and West Germany accounting for about 80 percent of the ownership.
American shipowners, who control about 30 percent of all free-flag tonnage, are the main target in the Bahamas' campaign to expand its shipping register.
The large response, particularly by New York companies to a ship registration conference sponsored by BankAmerica Trust & Banking Corporation (Bahamas), has provided convincing proof of the level of interest in Bahamian registry.
In addition to the main registration office in Nassau and another in London, a third office is soon to open in New York.
Most of the vessels so far registered are European-owned, but the Transport Ministry is confident the number of US ships will grow with Liberia's continued instability.
More than 5 million gross tons were shifted out of Liberian registry in the year after the coup and transferred to Panama and Greece. There could, however, be another large movement out of Liberia in 1984, when it is expected to raise its fees.
And with Panama caught up in the turmoil of Central America and a new socialist government in Greece, shipowners may be pushed to look for other registries.
Bahamian registry is open to all foreign-owned ships of more than 1,600 net tons, provided they are no more than 12 years old at the time of initial registration and engaged in foreign trade.
Transport Minister Philip Bethel has said the Bahamas wants to attract only vessels that can meet the highest safety and construction standards. None of the four tankers now registered are over two years old. Smaller vessels can be registered by the minister under special circumstances, provided they meet required safety standards.
There are no nationality, minimum wage, or union recognition requirements laid down by the Bahamian Act, but strict regulations govern the competency of officers.
As a signatory to 12 international conventions of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), the Bahamas is committed to upholding safety and pollution control requirements laid down by that group.
To compensate for the lack of local expertise, the Bahamas is using the six major classification societies, including the American Bureau of Shipping and Lloyds Register, to screen all applications for registration. Their mandatory surveys are being supported by some 300 independent and fully qualified nautical inspectors in some 65 countries and 200 ports. The inspectors have been appointed to review Bahamian ships annually and detain them if necessary.
Given the Bahamas' advantages as a stable tax haven close to the US, shipping experts maintain there is far more potential benefit to the economy from encouraging shipping companies to relocate here instead of only registering their ships.
William Bardelmeier, whose international ship consultancy firm, Jones Bardelmeier, has been headquartered here for 20 years, says: ''A fleet of a dozen medium-size bulk carriers of 65,000 deadweight tons each might generate from $35,000 to $130,000 in annual fees, but a fleet managed from the Bahamas could pump in more than $2 million by way of salaries, telecommunications, rent, and other expenses.''