A view of the Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio as it begins to break apart, after it ran aground on a reef in Mauritius, in this August 15, 2020, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Reuters.
On August 4, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Port of Beirut. The disaster killed 190 people, injured 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless. Two days later, a bulk carrier that had recently run aground a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius split into two, leaking about 1,000 tonnes of very low sulphur fuel oil and diesel into a protected marine reserve.
The explosion prompted the resignation of Lebanon’s entire cabinet, and led to a series of reports and investigations on the explosion’s causes. The blast released as much energy as a magnitude 3.3 earthquake, sending shockwaves up to [250 km through the ground, across the national border. One investigation reached back to 2013, when the Moldovian merchant vessel MV Rhosus docked an unscheduled visit to Beirut. The ship fell into a series of diplomatic and safety violations with port authorities. The captain and crew were not allowed to deboard and remained on the ship, without incoming supplies like fresh water. They were later released through legal aid on humanitarian grounds by an emergency injunction by a judge after receiving no word from the ship owner. The ship’s cargo – 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – was offloaded at port.
MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier, was en route to Brazil to load cargo. The ship hit a coral reef and ran aground in Mauritius on July 25. On August 6, the ship cracked its hull and leaked about 1,000 tonnes of its engine’s fuel into the Western Indian Ocean.
Maritime disasters from merchant shipping is not a recent issue. There are laws of universal bearing in mercantile shipping that impose strong vessel safety, crew and cargo standards. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the UN, creates and implements regulatory policies that govern the industry standards for seafarers, vessels, pollution and illegal trade.
Non-compliance with IMO’s laws could lead to cancellation of merchant vessel registration and seafarer licenses. But with such strict laws in place, overseen by a specialised governing agency whose principal role is to prevent and mitigate disaster, why do catastrophes like these keep happening?
The principal reason is that accountability towards shipowners and shipping companies in disaster prevention is preferential, and dysfunctional. Maritime laws make ships’ crews responsible for marine pollution. If the disaster in Beirut had occurred on board the MV Rhosus, the captain and related crew – if alive – would have been arrested and tried under maritime and national port laws. In the Mauritius oil spill, the captain and related crew of the MV Wakashio were arrested.
The nature of cargo a ship can withhold on a voyage, maintenance checks and crew safety are the responsibility of ‘top’ seafarers onboard — the captain, chief officers and engineers. So a big chunk of legal liability and accountability falls on these same shoulders. The shipping companies’ and owners’ sole responsibility is to provide capital for the required operations. Axiomatically, common malpractices by ship owners and shipping companies include unannounced detours to another port, low onboard resources for crew and loading more cargo than the vessel can carry.
However, ship owners and companies should be liable because they determine, among other things, the ship’s country of registration, the working condition of seafarers hired and resources available on a voyage. They have direct control over route changes and make decisions about the nature and quantity of cargo, maintenance and safety. They also have financial liability over the vessel and its operations. But existing maritime laws confer them with the least responsibility in the event of a disaster, to protect financial losses.
So as such, the system is designed to prevent disaster, but falls apart if disaster has already happened.
‘Flags of convenience’ is a business practice that allows ship owners to register a merchant vessel in another country, outside their country of domicile. This is a legal practice that several shipping companies in developed countries have adopted.
These countries, or ‘flags’, of registration have weaker laws vis-à-vis safety and precautionary measures, tax liability, hiring criteria of seafarers and disaster precautions. So operating under flags of convenience allows vessels to take advantage of the oversight and undertake dangerous tasks, leading to coastal and maritime disasters and even terrorism. Liberia, Honduras, North Korea, Somalia and Lebanon are examples of such countries. The MV Rhosus, a Russian-Moldovian cargo vessel, and the MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier, were both registered in Panama and sailed under the Panamanian flag.
The MV Wakashio oil spill destroyed over a significant portion of coral reefs near the island of Pointe d’Esny in Mauritius. The country is home to 800 fish species, 17 marine mammals and two species of sea-turtles, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This little island country generated about $1.88 billion in revenue from tourists by dint of being a premium, nature-based marine destination. Similarly, the Port of Beirut generated $198.88 million in 2019 and played an important role in facilitating local businesses during the pandemic. However, the losses extend well beyond infrastructure and tourism. Marine pollution due to human catastrophes have intergenerational impacts, and lead to the destruction of indigenous sustenance, nature-based livelihoods, opportunities and human life.
Disaster accountability for ‘business at any cost’ needs to go beyond capital recovery and the ‘polluter pays’ principle. It needs to ensure better working conditions, policies that imbibe the precautionary principle in disaster prevention and not limit governance to post facto investigations. The ocean is not a lawless medium of scurrilous trade. Marine ecology and biodiversity requires its due acknowledgement as a stakeholder in this industry.
The IMO responded to an abstract of this article stating they wouldn’t be in a position to comment or contribute to the article until their investigation concludes.
Sarita Fernandes is a coastal and marine policy scholar based in S-W India.