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From the News Desk: Coronavirus and piracy add to crew safety concerns

A recent spike in attacks on vessels in the Singapore Strait has been linked to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic

There is an increasing link between the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the safety of crew and vessels, according to recent analysis. Not only is there a heightened risk of accidents at sea due to the crew change crisis, but also there is evidence that increased pirate attacks on vessels may be linked to economic factors

A DAMNING report by the World Maritime University on seafarer welfare, released last week, raised some serious safety concerns and calls for significant reform of manning rules.

It found that chronic undermanning of ships has led to a “culture of adjustment” in which seafarers under-reported their hours worked or falsified records of hours rested to show compliance with the rules.

It found International Maritime Organization safe manning rules are often ignored, while inspectors rarely check records’ accuracy and flag states fail to enforce compliance.

Co-author Raphael Baumler told Lloyd’s List the findings had worrying safety implications. He said the authors had expected to find problems “but the magnitude of it was really shocking… and how it is accepted by everybody was really surprising”.

The report follows on from another worrying development, with the International Maritime Employers’ Council criticising charterers for potentially making the crew-change crisis worse by inserting ‘no crew change’ clauses in charterparties.

Cargo owners’ unwillingness to share the extra crew-change costs forced on the industry by the coronavirus was contributing to the lack of progress in resolving the crisis, said Francesco Gargiulo, chief executive of the council.

However, there have been some developments towards improving the situation in the past week. First, governments endorsed industry proposed protocols for safe crew changes amid the coronavirus pandemic to help resolve shipping’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Delegates at the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee threw their support behind the protocols for seafarers to safely join and leave vessels as well to be repatriated to their countries.

The latest move comes as there are still around 400,000 seafarers estimated to be stranded at sea and serving beyond their contracts due to the travel and border restrictions that governments around the world have imposed to try to curb the spread of the virus.

Also, Australia has announced that its waiver allowing crews to serve beyond 11 months on board ships will come to an end in February.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority had waived the rule early in the pandemic citing the need to be pragmatic amid travel curbs and border closures. But the exemptions will be removed from February 28.

Amsa general manager of operations Allan Schwartz said there had been enough time for ship operations to adjust to the coronavirus world and develop crew-change plans. “Seafarers have shouldered a heavy burden during the coronavirus pandemic, maintaining global trade and keeping our economies moving by delivering the vital supplies that we all need,” Mr Schwartz said.

Pirate attacks

Meanwhile, concerns have been raised about a recent spike in attacks on vessels in the Singapore Strait, leading to warnings for crews to remain vigilant while transiting the waterway.

Three vessels were boarded in one night last week and ship equipment stolen. Two weeks earlier, thieves targeted two bulk carriers and a tanker within a two-hour period.

The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy’s information sharing centre said the incidents on the night of November 8 bring the tally to 31 so far in 2020. It recorded 39 incidents in 2019.

Most incidents — 27 of this year’s 31 — were in the eastbound shipping lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme, suggesting they originated from Indonesia.

“The increase in incidents is probably driven as much by economic factors as anything else,” said Harry Hirst, a consultant and master mariner at law firm Incisive Law. “We think the coronavirus pandemic has caused increased economic hardships in the region.

“The eastbound lane of the Singapore Strait where most of the attacks have occurred, is closer to Indonesia where the economic hardships may be more acute.”

Piracy-related incidents are also on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea as well, with a number of new incidents taking place in the past two weeks after a spate of failed boardings south of Cotonou and Bayelsa State, Nigeria.

The semi-submersible heavylift vessel Zhen Hua 7 was boarded 78 nm northwest of Sao Tome at the weekend. Fourteen seafarers were taken and one crew member was also injured in the attack, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence.

Following on from that event, five Ghanaian crew have been kidnapped south of Nigeria from a locally trading cargoship.

A group of about seven armed pirates attacked the Ghana-flagged, 1992-built, 1,739 dwt AM Delta at about 0420 hrs and about 45 nautical miles south-southwest of Brass. Lloyd’s List Intelligence said the ship was attacked in transit from Douala, Cameroon to Takoradi, Ghana. The attackers damaged communications and bridge equipment, but the remaining crew were safe.

Other recent incidents include Italian and Beninese naval forces repelling an attack on the chemical tanker Torm Alexandra off Benin, and a Greek-owned product tanker attacked off Nigeria’s southwestern coast, both earlier this month.

The UK security consultancy Ambrey has linked the release of two Russian hostages kidnapped two months ago with higher piracy risk in the Gulf of Guinea since pirates are freer to attack vessels once they finish negotiations.

For the latest piracy incidents, see the Casualties page of the Lloyd’s List website or subscribe to the Lloyd’s List Intelligence Casualty Reporting service for real-time alerts.

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