Friday, 2 May 2014

Korean ferry loss exposes maritime greed culture

The Western Pacific from Indonesia to Korea is a peacetime ships' graveyard, especially around the Philippines where the world's worst peacetime maritime loss cost over 4,000 lives in 1987. In many cases the causes are primarily driven by incompetence and greed, and the latest example is the tragic loss of the 6,825-ton ferry, Sewol, in South Korean waters last month involving 302 fatalities, many of them young students. But does this ferry loss have lessons for cargo ships, particularly container vessels, even in seas considered safer where safety standards and oversight are higher? Yes, it does, and the worry is that thanks partly to the IMO's compromise over the container weighing amendments last year such tragedies will almost certainly recur repeatedly.

According to reports, the tragedy was "the result of endemic disregard for safety regulations, bad judgement and botched rescue efforts," said The Chosan Ilbo (Seoul). Reportedly, the Sewol was breathtakingly overloaded with cargo, carrying 3,608 tons of apparently improperly secured trucks, cars, trailers and machinery when the legal limit was 987 tons. The first mate reportedly testified that the ballast water, used for stabilising a ship, was reduced to make room for more freight. "It appears that such a practice was not uncommon," said a prosecutor on the investigation team. Police also suspect that the reported weight was understated.

While under the control of the inexperienced, 25-year old, third mate steering through one of the most treacherous waterways in the country, the ship seems to have made a sharp turn, shifting the cargo to one side (hence the loud noise reported by passengers), causing the ship to capsize. Allegedly the crew seem not to have been trained in lifeboat handling and told passengers to stay where they were for nearly an hour after the accident, a period that would have been more than ample to disembark all passengers safely in lifeboats, provided the ship's list was not too great and almost immediate. As an ignominious finale, the captain and crew were reportedly the first to jump ship once rescue boasts arrived. Fifteen crew members now face charges but they cannot be blamed for the underlying, greed-inspired motives of the ship's owners and/or company officers, who in pursuit of profit allowed the gross overloading of the vessel. They reportedly paid the lowest wages in the industry and converted the ship to boost its capacity. The owners, too, should be in the dock.

The problem of deliberately miss declared cargo weights has plagued shipping for decades. In 2008 I reported in Shipping Times* that deliberate under declaring of shipping container weights costs shipping lines and governments billions of pounds in lost revenue every year and places ships and their crews at risk. The financial incentive for freight shippers to break the law is huge. Governments impose import duties on the declared tonnage inside containers so if the payload is significantly under declared then big savings on import duties can be made. The shipping lines are also defrauded because they charge by the container, and although there are maximum container cargo weight limits, if these limits are seriously exceeded then fewer containers need to be hired and shipped.

Payload scams beggar belief

The size of the payload scams can, perhaps, be gauged by the loss of the container ship MSC Napoli, beached in Devon in 2008. The subsequent investigation by Britain's Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) found that no less than 20% of all the on-deck containers were over three tonnes heavier than their declared weights and in one case the difference was 20 tonnes. MAIB reported that such discrepancies were "widespread in the container ship industry and is due to many packers and shippers not having the facilities to weigh containers on their premises."

The cargo shippers have been able to get away with such payload scams because the container shipping industry is the only sector of the industry in which the weight of the cargo is not always accurately known and there is no mandatory requirement for containers to be weighed at a European port before loading a ship. Without such accurate data a safe cargo arrangement plan cannot be guaranteed and so stability issues, especially in rough seas, become a major safety hazard.

After years of lobbying for mandatory weighing of container cargoes by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and other bodies a golden opportunity was missed last year when the IMO watered down an amendment to make container weighing mandatory at all ports. But for compromise read bastardise, for the watering down of the amendment castrates it so much as to render it of dubious, disturbing value. The IMO settled for a decision by its sub committee on dangerous goods, solid cargoes and containers to accept an alternative mode of verification to the mandatory weighing of container payloads, much to the chagrin of the ITF. This serious watering down means that governments will be allowed to either choose the gold standard of mandatory weighing or the lesser method of certifying containers on an unformulated process of verifying the weight by adding together the constituent parts of a container load at unspecified times and places along the transport route.

The result of this feeble alternative choice will inevitably see more container ship losses and fatalities, especially as there are also widespread practices over lax cargo lashing inside the boxes. The Korean ferry disaster sends a clear message on maritime safety. Until international maritime safety law is upgraded and rigorously enforced, many more lives will be sacrificed on the altar of mammon.

*Google my headline: Container payload scams cost billions and risk lives