LALIT invited an experienced ship’s captain to inform a group of us about the technical aspects of the Wakashio wreck and to fill in some of the background to the questions the wreck poses. The session held yesterday lasted two hours, half of the time in a formal presentation, the other half in question-and-answer format.
The session covered all the related subjects: the kind of ship the Wakashio was, how ships get chartered for a voyage, the responsibility of the ship’s managing company, their Designated Person Ashore, the role of the insurance company and its salvage team, the ongoing scandal of “flags of convenience” and how the ship was a “floating bit of Panama”, where it was registered, the avoidance of laws of the country where the ship’s owners are registered as a company, the precise trajectory of the ship and the questions this poses as it twice left its trajectory, the strategy to get the ship off the reef, the fact that for the first time Very Low Sulfur fuel that replaces the old Heavy Sulfur Fuel after its banning from 1 January has been in a spill, short, medium and long-term environmental harm, the impact on fisherfolk and others in the area, how best to get rid of the front part of the ship once it broke in two, and now the stern section, how the reparations for the short term, middle and long term, will be decided by arbitration in the UK. We even went into details about the size of the different tugs in Mauritius, and their different usages, and how many spare tugs can be maintained in permanence in the eventuality of a potential wreck or fire. And we learned about the responsibility of the ship’s Designated Person Ashoreand whether a “crisis cell” was set up in Japan.
In the context of the timing of the Wakashio wreck, it has been one of a number of tragedies, all at the same time – raising the alarm that the entire world system is reaching breaking point. A New Zealand ship with 43 crew members on board capsized and only two men survived. The 5,800 cattle aboard all drowned. In Beirut, the explosion of the contents in a warehouse of an abandoned ship, caused death and destruction, and the resignation of the Lebanese Government. Industrial fishing ships have been encroaching on the Galapagos Islands, part of Ecuador housing an evolutionary gem. An oil tanker with 270,000 metric tons of crude oil caught fire near Sri Lanka.
So, at the same time as we try to get to the bottom of the Wakashio crash, there are concerns of a medium and long term nature that need to be addressed.
What was interesting was that a number of demands, a real plan for the future, begins to emerge:
1. A new international treaty will need to be negotiated, and Mauritius is in a position to initiate it with a few other states, to ensure that the registration of vessels is, in the future, done in the country where the ship’s owner is domiciled, and where those labour and environmental standards hold. This will do away with the “flags of convenience”, whereby Panama registers half of all ships, while taking none of the responsibility for damage they do.
2. The International Maritime Organization needs to set up an “Ocean Mission Control”, which is not a private concern, and which has regional resources to deal with emergencies, so that each country does not have to invest to cover costs of dealing with the wrecks of passing ships. This way the high costs of “the state of preparedness” are shared.
3. Investment needs to be increased into electric fleets with added sails, to decrease the dangers of fuel spills by bulk carriers and also, worse still, by tankers.
4. Cyber-security will need to be ramped up, to prevent any possible hacking of trajectories on automatic pilot systems on board.
5. Satellite tracking will need to be used.
6. The lighthouse in the South of Mauritius should be put back into operation – as a backup system for human orientation in space – like those in Albion and on L’ile Plate.
7. The Mauritian state will need to initiate new international regulations around “lanes” for ships’ traffic around the islands of Mauritius that are a reasonable distance from shore.
8. Voluntary and compulsory Reporting Systems will need to be put in place for those ships coming within 12 miles of the coast.
9. All this will need a local infrastructure, a unit to co-ordinate all the aspects of future care of the sea.
10. The importance of keeping in mind, while analysing this shipwreck, the conflicting “vested interests” around reparations and also possible geo-political interests.