Sub-standard owners still colour public’s perception of shipping

Reputations of the best in the industry are damaged by the actions of the worst, and that has serious implications for all

Super-size cruiseships resembling state-of-the-art hotels, cyber-security, e-navigation and LNG fuelling. To any casual observer, those could easily appear to be the factors that dominate today’s shipping industry.

And they could be forgiven such thinking, given the blizzard of marketing and industry-wide discussion such subjects generate.

Even somewhat more knowledgeable market watchers could be forgiven for believing that the physical operation of ships today runs very smoothly, allowing full attention to be given to, perhaps, financial concerns, net asset values, counter-party quality and return on investment.

However, in reality, despite the gloss of new vessels, innovative technologies and capital market activity, the world of shipping remains, in parts, a dark, dirty and dangerous place.

To see just how, browse a few pages of the newly published 2016 annual report of the Tokyo Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on port state control (PSC) in the Asia-Pacific region.

A handful of photographs paint a grim picture: a fridge full of festering and rotten food, a decrepit and dangerous gangway, bust water pipes, what appears to be bodged lifeboat repairs and, to cap it all, a ship’s hull with a huge vertical crack.

Reading the detail of the report of the inspections conducted by PSC officials in 20 countries around the Pacific Rim, from Chile to New Zealand, presents an even more sobering message.

Deficiencies in fire safety measures, safety of navigation and lifesaving appliances continue to top the list of problems found, with those three categories accounting for 50% of the total.

It is truly shocking that, in 2016, a significant number of shipowners and operators care so little for the lives of their crew and others that they send ships to sea with such deficiencies.

"It is truly shocking that, in 2016, a significant number of shipowners and operators care so little for the lives of their crew and others that they send ships to sea with such deficiencies"

Inspectors boarded 17,503 ships last year, 71% of the 24,744 estimated to be operating in the region — a result for which the Tokyo MOU members deserve praise. Of the total number of 31,678 inspections, 18,943 turned up some deficiency, with 1,090 being serious enough to justify the vessel’s detention.

It is again a credit to member nations that the number of inspections continues to rise, up from just 21,686 in 2006. It is also some comfort that the number of detentions has fallen in recent years, with the percentage of ships detained down to a new low of 3.44% compared with a high of 6.9% in 2008.

Calculations generated by the detention records saw two flags cut from the Tokyo MOU’s "white list" of reputable flags, three added to its "grey list" and two removed from the "black list".

Thankfully, during the second half of 2016, the International Ship Registry of Cambodia — which the Tokyo MOU describes as “one of the worst ship registries” — ceased operations. Most of the ships on the register moved to Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo or Micronesia, which are all on the "black list".

Performance of some of the myriad of "recognised organisations", which are supposed to be accountable for a ship’s condition, is lamentable. General cargo, multipurpose ships and bulkers accounted for more than 66% of total deficiencies.

It is far too easy for the shipping business at large to try quietly to ignore such statistics. Too many people in responsible organisations sometimes appear to want to turn a blind eye to the problems of shipping’s under-belly, its fleet of small ships flagged on small registers.

Of course, credit must be given to the many major owners and institutions that have improved their operating standards and performance dramatically in recent years.

But the realities of shipping, as revealed by the Tokyo MOU, as well as the other MOU’s around the world, need to be acted on since this is what colours the public debate.

Understandably, political rulemakers and regulators will take little note of the advances made by the top 10% of companies if the bottom of the market is allowed to put citizens and the environment at risk in such cavalier fashion.

Those industry leaders need to step up and take real action to help shipping tackle the continuing problem of low standards and the risks they pose.

If they do not, they will only have themselves to blame if new and unwieldy regulations are imposed by regulators who believe detention statistics reveal an industry unfit to take a major role in regulating itself.