December 15, 2014

Positives in the time of cholera

The last two weeks have thrown up some good news for shipping, for a change. Not that the short term prospects for the industry are any better- UNCTAD's recent Review of Maritime Transport 2014 said that the world’s seaborne shipments grew by an average of just 3.8 per cent in 2013, and 2014 is going to be worse- but because, for one, the IMO has finally decided to make it mandatory to weigh containers before they are loaded.
In future, container weight will be verified by either weighing the loaded container at an approved weighing station or by adding the weight of individual items in the container, and adding the container's net weight to determine the gross weight of the box.

The bad news here is that this long overdue regulation, which dramatically affects safety, will not come into force for another two years. This should be unacceptable. Ships have suffered major stability issues- they have even broken into two, container stacks have collapsed and boxes have gone over the side- because of this criminal practice. Continuing to expose our crews to these dangers for another two years is intolerable. 

I am also curious what level of ‘inaccuracy’ would be considered acceptable at approved weight centres: ABB’s Senior VP Eero Lehtovaara says that a 10% variation is commonplace. That is too much. A figure of even 1 tonne of variation per container can add thousands of tonnes of potentially dangerous weight on a relatively modern container vessel, not to speak of the super-sized jumbos coming out of shipyards at an alarming pace. 

In another positive development, the International Chamber of Shipping formally said what many in the industry have long felt- that the IMO should be the main body for addressing ship emissions. The ICS has- somewhat obliquely- called for the UN’s Climate Change Conference to endorse this. 

Regardless of whether this happens or not, shipping needs to hammer home to the international community that an international industry subject to the IMO’s evolving emission laws should not be forced to bear the burden of the vagaries of individual State regulations that are cumbersome and more expensive than those mandated by the IMO. It needs to particularly target the USA and Europe during this offensive, pointing out that only a third of the world’s fleet is registered with developed nations and that shipping transports 90% of everything but produces only a little more than 2% of greenhouse emissions- and the percentage is reducing.  

I fear that shipping will have a tough time pushing this, not least because some of the national regulators are arrogant and impractical. Nonetheless, it must go in all guns blazing. Rolling over and quietly accepting unfair treatment will only make things worse longer term.

Towards the end, heartening comments on the treatment of seamen from V.Ships’ President Roberto Giorgi, who warns, in a Lloyd’s List piece, that ships’ crews need to be treated with more dignity and respect because the industry needs to recruit more people to go to sea. I would have written off this comment- and others that I will mention later- had they come from the majority of shipowners or shipmanagers as usual empty talk, but Mr Giorgi has my respect for his involvement with seafarer rights, and his actions in support of getting the officers of the Hebei Spirit released five years ago. 

He went on to say what I have long felt- that the industry cannot take the MLC as just a piece of legislation, and that shipowners’ associations should lobby and advertise maritime careers. That shipping needs to take much more seriously seafarer criminalisation and abandonment issues, and that crews need to see the industry defend their rights. 

I have a small bone to pick with Mr Giorgi, though. He is reported to have added that the industry should ‘enable seafarers to understand the important role they play and the opportunities available to them across the maritime sector’. While I have no problem with the opportunities bit, I will point out, with some experience, that those at sea are usually in little doubt of the critical importance of their role. 

Those ashore are often under a delusion- they think they are the ones operating the ships that pay everybody’s salaries and bring in the profits. Seamen always know better. 


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