When economic interests impair maritime safety

Aging boats and low staffing levels are two factors with a high degree of responsibility in many maritime accidents, and examples of this are the accidents suffered by petroleum tankers such as the Aegean Sea and the Braer.

In the early hours of the 3rd of December in 1992 the Greek petroleum tanker Aegean Sea entered in the port of La Coruña (in Galicia, Northwest Spain) with adverse weather conditions, winds of over 100 km/h and visibility of under 100m. Because of a swelling of the sea – according to the ships’s captain – or due to an incorrect maneuver – according to the Marine Merchant General Directorate -the vessel deviated from the planned course and ended up grounded against the rocks 100 meters from the coast and close to the entrance to the port. This accident caused significant ecological damage. The 80,000-tons spillage of petroleum affected 300km of coastline and killed around 26,000 animals.  

In January of 1993 in Great Britain the British petroleum tanker Braer, which was registered in Liberia, crashed against the rocks of the coast of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The vessel was a single hulled tanker of 89,730 tons which belonged to the North American company Braer Corp flying the flag of Liberia for convenience. In the morning of the 4th of January, with a storm force of 10 to 11 and with waves of more than 10 meters, the ventilation of the diesel tanks of the machine room broke. Seawater began to enter and contaminated the vessel’s diesel. At 4.40 am the main motor went out, leaving the Braer without propulsion and in darkness.   

These two regrettable maritime accidents were caused to a large degree by the interests of some ship owners who, in order to obtain a bigger economic profit, cut back on safety. The staffing of the two petroleum tankers previously mentioned were similar; a Greek command and a mainly Philippine crew. 

The diversity these petroleum tankers’ crew continues to be a recurring characteristic with current mariners, given that between the European sailors and those from the Philippines and other Third World countries there is no much difference to ship owners. This is largely determined by the companies, which in the search for higher profit, contract the cheapest workforce available, frequently reducing crew size – although there are minimum levels which can’t be ignored – limiting with these constant staff changes the opportunities for the crew members to get to know the vessel well.    

In many cases the crew is made up of people from different countries and the marines can’t understand each other or, worse still, their English is so poor that they aren’t capable of understanding the captain’s orders when they are slightly complex.

This problem is so serious that the German government proposed – within a range of measures put before the European Community – the introduction of a work language exclusively for boats and the communications between crews and the maritime authorities. They also proposed the need for more rigorous controls when petroleum tankers dock in community ports. Currently, with the Montreal Protocol, the port authorities are authorized to review 25% of the vessels which dock. However, this control is regrettably limited to a check of the vessel’s documentation.

It was further proposed that petroleum tankers should be obliged to sail further away from the coast. In the case of the Braer, it is believed that if they had chosen to go around the north of the islands instead of choosing the southern channel the ecological disaster would have been avoided. 

Economic Reasons Influence the Vessels’ flags

Profit is also the determining factor in the adoption of flags of convenience; the Braer was sailing under a Liberian flag. The Aegean Sea was almost 20 years old when she sunk and the petroleum tanker that crashed in the Shetland Islands had already been around for more than 17 years. They formed part of a wide group of petroleum tankers that were built during the 1970s and as such didn’t include the security specifications which were later implemented by the International Maritime Organization for newly built petroleum tankers. These older vessels lack a double hull and still have 10 years in front of them without the need to modernize, factors which have led to them being categorized as “almost pirate”.

This is a truly alarming situation when you take into account the fact that there is approximately 1,500 million tons of petroleum transported around the seas of the world every year.

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