Two new major reports outline how Covid-19, climate change, decarbonisation, cyber and ever-larger vessels present long-term challenges for commercial shipping. It is hardly surprising given the events of the past year or so – but could shared data technology and better collaboration go some way to helping the industry find solutions?
The devastating global impact of the pandemic has – according to a new industry report – had less effect on maritime trade than originally feared.
The Safety and Shipping Review 2021 – published by insurance carrier Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) – does, however, go on to predict that the shipping industry’s economic recovery remains volatile.
It describes the current crew change situation as “a humanitarian crisis,” estimating that 200,000 seafarers remain stranded aboard vessels, unable to be repatriated due to Covid restrictions, and contributing to mental fatigue and poor decision-making that directly impacts shipping safety.
Losses at ‘historic low’
The annual study, which analyses reported global shipping losses and incidents over 100 gross tons, also reveals there were 49 total losses of vessels reported worldwide during 2020 – the second lowest total this century.
The South China, Indochina, Indonesia, and Philippines maritime regions continue to be hotspots, accounting for one in every three shipping losses.
“Shipping has shown great resilience through the pandemic, with total losses at an historic low for the third year running – but it’s not all smooth sailing,” explained Captain Rahul Khanna, head of marine risk consulting at AGCS.
“The ongoing crew crisis, the increasing number of issues posed by larger vessels, growing concerns around supply chain delays and disruptions, as well as complying with environmental targets, all bring significant risk management challenges for ship owners and their crews.”
Risks of ever-larger vessels
The blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given container ship in March 2021 is pointed out by the report as being indicative of a growing list of incidents involving increasingly large commercial vessels.
The blocking of the Suez Canal by Ever Given in March 2021 (Credit: Shutterstock)
With shipping companies looking to achieve greater economies of scale and fuel efficiency by using larger and larger vessels, the average capacity of today’s container ships vessels has now increased by 1,500% from the level it was at 50 years ago – more than doubling over the past 15 years.
New container ships regularly break the 20,000 TEU mark and several vessels of more than 24,000 TEU are currently on order.
“Larger vessels present unique risks,” explained Captain Nitin Chopra, senior marine risk consultant at AGCS. “Responding to incidents is now more complex and expensive. Approach channels are being dredged deeper and berths and wharfs are being extended to accommodate larger vessels, but the overall size of ports has remained the same. As a result, a ‘miss’ can turn into a ‘hit’ much more often for ultra-large container vessels.”
Shipping gets cyber attacked
The Allianz report also notes that the world’s four largest shipping companies have all now been hit by significant cyber attacks – increasing concerns about potential strikes on critical maritime infrastructure, ports, and shipping routes. In fact, South African ports have already been hit this year, as we reported earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the world’s primary piracy hotspot – the Gulf of Guinea – accounted for 95% of the number of crew kidnapped worldwide in 2020, with 130 crew kidnapped in 22 incidents. Vessels are also being targeted further from the coast – more than 200nm offshore in some cases.
The report argues that Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate levels of piracy if the pandemic leads to increased social, political, and economic difficulties.
Global loss hotspots
The South China, Indochina, Indonesia, and Philippines maritime region is described by the AGCS report as the major loss location of the past decade (224 vessels), driven by high levels of local and international trade, congested ports and busy shipping lanes, older fleets and extreme weather exposure.
Together, the South China, Indochina, Indonesia and Philippines, East Mediterranean and Black Sea, and Japan, Korea, and North China maritime regions account for around half of the 876 shipping losses of the past 10 years (437).
The most accident-prone vessels in 2020 were a Greek Islands ferry and a Canadian ferry – both were involved in six different incidents.
The shipping industry’s economic recovery remains volatile (Credit: Shutterstock)
Climate change challenge
Shipping is also likely to come under increasing pressure to accelerate its efforts in tackling climate change, according to AGCS.
“A huge investment in research and development is required if the industry is to meet the challenging targets being set,” said Captain Rahul Khanna.
“Today’s existing fleet and current technology will not get shipping to the IMO’s target of a 50% cut in emissions by 2050, let alone the more ambitious targets being discussed by some national governments.”
Data-driven security measures
A second industry review – The Future of Maritime Safety Report, published by satellite telecommunications specialist Inmarsat – has collated three years of distress call data to highlight areas of maritime activity where, it argues, more could be done to prevent further loss of life and assets.
It notes how increasingly extreme weather is a growing concern, with data showing a consistent rise in distress signals during November and December – months known for harsh weather in the northern hemisphere.
While calling for improved regulations for fishing vessels and tankers to be retrofitted with inert gas systems, the Inmarsat report also predicts that remote monitoring software and artificial intelligence will both bring important benefits to the industry, arguing strongly that the biggest improvements to maritime safety will be achieved by a fundamental cultural change – with safer operations prioritised above company profits.
“Technology is the key to making long-term structural changes to maritime safety,” insisted Peter Broadhurst of Inmarsat Maritime.
“The most commonly seen issue is the fact that the captain acts as a single point of failure, which stands in opposition to the recommended model where there are multiple safeguards in place to prevent an incident occurring.
“The creation of an online anonymised ‘data lake’ for maritime safety information would allow the industry to identify weak spots, identify solutions, allocate resources, and measure progress.
“The data could be shared with all stakeholders – including coastguards and regulators – resulting in a reformation that would benefit the entire industry.”
One thing is sure, increased collaboration will be needed.
Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.