AN ENVIRONMENTAL disaster has been unfolding on the idyllic Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, caused by apparent negligence on board the MV Wakashio. The empty bulk carrier ran aground on a reef on the south-east coast of Mauritius on 25 July and has since leaked more than one million litres of fuel oil. The ship eventually broke into two sections and the forward section (which does not contain any pollutants or cargo) has been towed out to sea, to be scuttled, and is resting on the ocean floor in 2000-metre-deep water. The rear section remains firmly stuck on the reef and will require months to remove the wreck.

The empty ship was underway from China to Brazil. The vessel is chartered by Mitsui OSK Lines, a Japanese company, owned and operated by the privately owned Nagashiki Shipping, and crewed by 20 seafarers of Indian, Sri Lankan and Filipino nationality. The ship is registered in Panama, a so-called ‘flag of convenience’ country, where regulations covering the running and maintenance of ships flying the Panamanian flag are some of the most lax in the world. Furthermore, Panamanian legislation offers ship owners generous tax concessions.

A vessel operating arrangement as described above is not uncommon in the world of international shipping and makes prosecution of those responsible for the accidents as well as compensation for the damage caused, very difficult. In this instance initial blame has been laid on the ship’s captain who allegedly directed the ship to sail closer to the shore to be in Wi-Fi range to enable the crew to make contact with their loved ones. It is also alleged that a birthday party on board added to the lack of attention with respect to where the ship was heading. The captain and the chief officer have been arrested and jailed, charged with endangering safe navigation under the Mauritian piracy and Maritime Violence Act.

According to the authorities, the National Coast Guard radar operators first spotted the Wakashio when it was 11.5nm offshore and tried to contact the ship but without success. The ship then ran aground by sailing headfirst onto the reef. After a few days, inclement weather caused the ship to swing around and the fuel oil tanks at the stern of the vessel came into contact with the reef tearing a gash in the ship’s hull and spilling its contents.

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Mauritius’ economy is heavily reliant on international tourism and was already hurting because of the COVID 19 outbreak has caused the country to close its borders to international travellers. It had just begun to promote domestic tourism; however, the oil-soaked beaches have a put a halt to this. The south-east coast where the oil spill happened is near the internationally recognised Blue Bay Marine Park, famous for snorkelling, kite surfing, sailing, and sea flora and fauna.

The issues arising from these types of vessel operating arrangements in international shipping have recently also been in the spotlight in Australia. Several ships have been held up in Australian ports due to alleged labour violations related to demands from seafarers to be sent home because they have been on board for more than 14 months. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has detained these ships until these issues have been sorted out. One of these ships, the MV Unison Jasper, was bringing alumina from Gladstone to the Tomago aluminium smelter in Newcastle. The violation “relates to the failure to ensure seafarers’ employment and social rights under Article IV of the Maritime Labour Convention, including payment of wages, crew repatriation and provision of fresh food,” AMSA said in a statement.

The Unison Jasper is chartered to Danish shipping services company Lauritzen Bulkers A/S, which sublet the ship to a third party. The ship is owned by Emerald Shipping (HK) Co. Ltd., registered in Hong Kong, operated by Unison Marine Group and chartered by Pacific Basin, according to AMSA. The ship has Chinese officers and Burmese crew, some of whom have been on board for 14 months (three months in excess of the maximum period as stipulated by AMSA). This is another example of multiple layers of ownership making it difficult for authorities to prosecute the responsible party. According to AMSA the ship will be detained until it can adequately address the violations.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and its 174 member states is supposed to counteract the trend of ships registering under a flag of convenience, or open, registry. However, without much success. When the IMO was established in 1958 only 13% of ships were flagged under open registries, but that figure has grown to approximately 75% today. Shipowners argue that to remain competitive in a global market they have to adopt these types of arrangements.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the shipping industry’s normal practices for regular crew changes, which has raised costs and created logistical barriers that have made difficult conditions even worse for vulnerable seafarers. An estimated 250,000 seafarers across the world are currently working beyond their contract date. Could this have contributed to the captain of the Wakashio wanting to sail closer to shore so the crew could contact their families which they had not seen for a long time? A proper investigation will bring out the truth, but many shipping experts predict that fatigue due to the inability to repatriate tired crew during the time of the pandemic, is likely to result in similar accidents.

* Peter van Duyn is Maritime Logistics Expert, Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics at Deakin University

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