Ensuring Safety of Mariners and Cargo on Commercial Vessels


Over 90% of world trade is carried out by the international shipping industry. As of January 2017, there were 52,183 ships in the world’s merchant fleets. General cargo ships are ranked as the most common type of ship in the global merchant fleet, accounting for about a third of the fleet.

The world fleet is registered in over 150 nations, and manned by over a million seafarers of virtually every nationality. The worldwide population of seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships is estimated at 1,647,500 seafarers, of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings. These figures are self-explanatory, in terms of contribution and significance of shipping industry to world trade.

So, providing a safe maritime environment to the men and women working on the vessels, and the cargo they escort, naturally becomes priority of the first order for the shipping industry.

Ship Security

Ship security measures are often the first and only measures preventing criminal acts at sea. At the same time ship operators have had problems defending the quality of their ship security analysis when it is challenged. The basic objectives of ‘ship security’ are – To effectively reduce the security risk to acceptable levels; and to create a security culture in the organisation that supports effective ship operation on an everyday basis.

Private Maritime Security

The number of companies who have jumped into the deep blue sea to offer armed guards and other private security services for commercial shippers who fear pirate attacks has risen sharply in the past few years. Although the provision and use of weapons at sea for self defense is legal, there are a myriad contradictory laws as soon as those security teams start heading to port.

These contracts are so lucrative for the security contractors that they have been reported to drop their weapons overboard when the vessel they are guarding is about to enter a weapons-restrictive port and then purchase new weapons for their next contracted voyage.

The reality is that many security companies require creative workarounds to avoid the stiff fines and penalties levied by developing and often rightfully paranoid nations in Africa and the Middle East. Maritime security providers have been arrested and jailed in Somalia, Egypt and Kenya.

While piracy, smuggling and trafficking have been realities for the African coastal communities for a long time during the last decade, they have resurfaced on an international level bringing in new actors and alerting international stakeholders. Consequently, there is a gap between local demands and international priorities.

International Ship & Port Facilities Security Code (ISPS)

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty describes ISPS regulations. ISPS came into force way back in July 2004. While the treaty directly deals with maritime safety and maritime security, its objectives are – International connection to detect security threats and provide adequate guideline against breach of security.

There are three levels in the ISPS:

  1. Background level of threat that is normal operating condition. Maintaining minimum appropriate protective security measure at all time.
  2. Heightened threat but no defined target. Maintain additional protective security measure for period of time.
  3. High level of threat against a specific target. Further high level of security measure maintained for a limited period of time.

International treaties, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), have protected seafarers on cargo and passenger ships for decades. While the understanding of safety (hazard-based) risks may come from objective historical accident statistics, the security (threat-based) risks must rely on expert judgments based on knowledge and experience as well as objective data. The process is complicated in that the link between consequences, evaluation criteria, risk control measures and crew preparedness is strong, but not intuitive.

World Shipping Council’s Initiatives

The safety and security of ships, cargo and personnel is critically important to the liner shipping companies that are members of the World Shipping Council. The World Shipping Council and its member companies are working with governments on programs to improve the processes for screening personnel working in the maritime industry and to ensure that seafarers are given an opportunity to go on shore leave when they have fulfilled a port states’ landing requirements.

The World Shipping Council and its member companies are taking steps to reduce the risk that vessels will be successfully hijacked and are working to assist governments in addressing the issue. In support of the on-going work to enhance maritime, cargo and supply chain security, the World Shipping Council has established a U.S. Security Advisory Committee, a European Security Advisory Committee, and various supporting working groups comprised of representatives from member companies.

The primary role of these committees and work groups is to analyse, propose and implement measures at the national, regional (EU) and/or international level for the enhancement of the security of ports, vessels, cargo and personnel.

Piracy – A Global Concern

Maritime piracy is a crime under international law and as such has been a concern to the shipping industry for some time. The piracy crisis in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, and now in the wider Indian Ocean, continues and has raised public awareness of the problem. The spike in attacks in 2008 forced ship owners and charterers to find ways to reduce risk and rapidly increasing “exception” insurance premiums for routes like the Gulf of Aden and a rapidly expanding piracy zone in the Indian Ocean. Vessels sailing in the area are at constant risk of being robbed and hijacked by Somali pirates.

Maritime security, though the most essential component for safe voyages, has been often debated. A case in point is IMO’s stand over private ‘armed’ security personnel. The then Secretary-General of the IMO, Koji Sekimizu once said, “The carriage of firearms on board merchant ships is a complex legal issue with Member States taking diverse positions. The carriage of armed personnel is a matter for flag States to authorize, however it has also accepted that their carriage has legal implications for coastal and port States, particularly with respect to the carriage, embarkation and disembarkation of firearms and security equipment in areas under the jurisdiction of such port or coastal States.”

The Way Ahead

Without shipping, the import and export of goods on the scale necessary for the modern world would not be possible. As the world realizes that piracy cannot be effectively checked by ships designed to ferry cargo and crew, regional and private solutions, including deployment of armed Marshalls is indispensable.

Civil war-ridden nations, failed States like Somalia, treacherous passages like the Gulf of Aden will continue to pose threat to the innocent seafarers and goods worth trillions of dollars, waiting to get unloaded at their respective destinations.

As the shipping industry is all set to embark on a busy and expensive journey over 2020-2030, each ship owner or operator must make a self-assessment based on risk, propose and deploy the most conducive security strategy to safegaurd their vessels and men.

Sea News Feature, December 5


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