- Wakashio has brought heartache to islanders of Mauritius.
- Various governments have expressed discomfort with the sinking of the front section of the vessel.
- There has also been silence on the location of the forward section of the vessel.
- The roles and responsibilities of Panama in providing Ship Registration Services is questioned.
- Panama has now become embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Wakashio
- Japanese owned Wakashio was registered in the South American country of Panama.
- A more transparent international ship registry regime could have avoided the delayed response to Wakashio.
- The pressure is starting to mount on IMO over its role in the decision to sink the Wakashio.
According to an article published in Forbes and authored by Nishan Degnarain, the front half of the large Panama-flagged, Japanese vessel responsible for the worst oil spill in the Indian Ocean, the Wakashio, that has brought heartache to islanders on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius since its arrival 28 days ago, has gone missing in the Indian Ocean.
Silence over its location
There has not been an official statement from the Government of Mauritius on the exact location of the vessel – which is the size of an aircraft carrier and in the largest 1% of vessels ever built – and the Governments of France, Japan who have Ministers and Advisers on the ground have remained silent on its precise location. In its last sighting, it had been seen heading in a SouthEast direction toward Antarctica. The last written statement from the Government of Mauritius on the controversial front half of the Wakashio was on Wednesday 19 August at 6 pm (4 days ago) and did not include any indication of location or destination.
The French Minister of Outer Islands, Sébastien Lecornuhas, at least expressed his discomfort with the sinking of the front section of the vessel, even though Mauritian Government press releases continue to imply it was French Government specialists who were the main advisers overseeing this operation.
Mystery location for the scuttling
There has also been silence on the location of the forward section of the vessel or confirmation of any possible scuttling by Panama Authorities where the vessel was registered, the Japanese owners (Nagashiki Shipping), the global shipping regulator (the UN-agency the International Maritime Organization, or IMO).
In response to questions from Forbes, the IMO have issued a statement on Friday 21 July that it was out of the scope of their specialist on the ground in Mauritius, to be involved in any part of the towing or potential scuttling of the forward section of the Wakashio unless there was a risk of an oil spill. This was part of the very specific and defined mandate of the IMO support mission agreed with Mauritius prior to the arrival of the IMO specialist on 11 August, five days after oil had started leaking.
How can such a large and high profile vessel go missing in 2020, with the eyes of the world’s media watching its impact on a daily basis on the people and nature of Mauritius? Daily video coverage of both the grounding and the breakup of the vessel in the news had shown its scale.
At the same time, an incredible 5-minute video has appeared online of what conditions looked like from the vantage point of the bridge of the Wakashio when at sea, where the captain should have been at the time of the grounding and shows that the bridge is equipped with some of the latest technologies for a 13-year-old vessel and the height advantage of being in the elevated bridge, offering even further lines of sight.
Now it appears that the role of Panama has come into the limelight, including its roles and responsibilities in providing Ship Registration Services.
Why does this matter? Panama is the world’s largest ship registration service, in the highly secretive world of vessels registered, and which world leaders have failed to address despite boastful claims to have brought about the end of Global Tax Havens over the past ten years. Over half the world’s ocean-bound vessels are registered with so-called ‘flags of convenience’ where vessels or their owners are not physically present in these countries.
Here are the three ways that Panama has now become embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Wakashio, and which any independent inquiry would need to address.
1. The Wakashio never visited Panama (since public records began)
The Wakashio was a vessel that was Japanese owned and operated largely in Asia. But it was registered in the South American country of Panama. Why? A search through the vessel’s travel history (publically available from satellite records since 2013), reveals that the Wakashio had never been to Panama. The Wakashio started operations in 2007.
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has prided himself as being seen as a leader in the ‘Sustainable Ocean Economy,’ is a high profile member of a Head of State Panel called the ‘High-Level Panel on the Sustainable Ocean Economy,’ hosted by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Soldberg. Yet, Japan continues to allow its largest ship owners to register their vessels in the South American country of Panama, even where they never visit the country. What was so wrong with a Japanese ship registry, for a Japanese shipping company?
Owners of the Wakashio, Nagashiki Shipping, have been asked about how many of their 11 large vessels are registered in Panama and how many visits these vessels have made to Panama in their history. Forbes is still awaiting a response.
2. Confusing discrepancies in statements from Panama’s Shipping Authorities
Amid the focus on the splitting up of the Wakashio and subsequent cleanup operations over the past two weeks, two statements issued by the Panama Maritime Authorities have attracted attention and commentary among several industry publications.
Well, a respected maritime industry site, gCaptain, had revealed that two and a half weeks after the vessel had run aground, the Panama Maritime Authorities issued a public statement on 12 August that said the following:
“On 14 July 2020, the bulk carrier sailed from Singapore (Offshore Terminal) to Tubarao, Brazil. Everything went smoothly until July 25, when the ship faced adverse weather conditions near the coast of Mauritius. It was then, necessary to perform various maneuvers to change course due to the state of the sea. All maneuvers were supervised by the captain and first officer of the ship who were aware of the situation and weather conditions; At 19:25hrs of the same day, while on the bridge, the captain, the first officer, and the chief engineer noticed that the ship stopped moving and that it was stranded, in a latitude position: 20°26.6S and longitude: 057°44.6E, notifying the parties concerned (flag of the ship, ship operators and local authorities).”
Satellite analysis published first on Forbes on August 9th, 15 days after the vessel had grounded (and three days before the Panama statement), revealed that the vessel had been sailing at 11 knots in a straight line for 1200 miles, and no evidence could be found that the vessel had tried to ‘perform various maneuvers to change course due to the state of the sea.’
Satellite weather detection did not reveal weather conditions out of the ordinary for that time of year, nor did any other shipping seem to be impacted in the region by adverse weather conditions at the time of the accident.
Six days after the Panama Maritime Authority’s statement – and as the forward section of the Wakashio was being towed away under the cover of darkness in the evening of 18 August – the captain of the vessel Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, was arrested in Mauritius for the crime of ‘endangering safe navigation.’ It has been reported that Mauritian police are pursuing two lines of inquiry – that the captain was not as his station as he was attending a birthday party, or that the vessel had been attempting to secure wifi from the land. He has not yet commented.
In a response to Forbes on 18 August, representatives of the Japanese owner of the Wakashio, Nagasaki Shipping Co Ltd, referred Forbes to comments made by the Vice-Chairman of INTERGARO, (International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners), Captain Jay K. Pillai, in which he said, “while the investigation is still ongoing by Owners and Flag State (Panama), I think it would be inappropriate to comment on the possible direct or root causes of the incident. However, it is the responsibility of owners to meet the requirements of the ISM Code (Safe Management of Ships, which is part of SOLAS) which has been applicable to tankers and passenger ships from 1996 and all other merchant ships from 1998.”
Captain Pillai then went on to state, “We can have rules, regulations, conventions, codes safety management systems, and procedures, but there is always the need to add in the human factor,” highlighting that “hopefully the Authorities and Flag State will conclude the Wakashio investigation report with VDR (Voyage Data Recorder) data and this will be published soon for the shipping industry to learn and prevent such accidents.”
The actions of a ‘rogue employee’?
Could such carnage seen in Mauritius simply be due to the actions of a single ‘rogue employee’ not following any of his training, ship safety procedures, and overcoming all safeguards?
That would appear to place a significant burden on the shoulders of one individual, for the safety not just of the crew and vessel, but of entire nations through which such a large vessel carrying a toxic fuel had traveled.
When a ‘rogue co-pilot’ committed suicide and brought down Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps, killing 150 passengers and crew on board in 2015, there was a global shakeup in transportation security to ensure there could never be a single point of failure that could result in catastrophic failure. This covered airlines and should also have covered shipping given the size and potential risk of the shipping industry, as the devastation in Mauritius shows.
Further questions that an independent inquiry would need to address:
- What are the role of a Flag State (Panama in the case of the Wakashio) and the Global Shipping Regulator (the IMO) to ensure ordinary citizens around the world are kept safe from global shipping and the actions of ‘rogue actors’ or a single maverick employee? Were global regulations too lax around fail-safes?
- How is the Maritime Authority of a Flag State (Panama in the case of the Wakashio) able to assess such risk of a ‘rogue employee’ and ensure appropriate fail-safe measures are in place and sufficiently robust?
- Was Panama’s Ship Registry able to effectively complete these tasks in the case of the Wakashio, given access to all the modern tools and technologies now available in the world at a fraction of the cost as even a few years ago?
In a statement in response to this article, representatives of Nagashiki Shipping said on 23 August, “the exact cause of the grounding is under investigation and Nagashiki Shipping is co-operating fully with the relevant authorities in this ongoing investigation but in order to avoid any speculation the exact cause of the incident is not yet known.”
3. Could a more transparent international ship registry regime have avoided the delayed response to Wakashio
In questions in the Mauritian parliament on 11 August that was televised, five days after the oil leak began, it was clear there was a complex and overlapping set of legal responsibilities that required a flurry of paperwork to be hastily signed regarding salvage operations, liabilities, shipowner responsibility, Government responsibility, Flag state responsibility.
While some authorities may claim that it is the responsibility of Mauritian authorities to be trained in ocean shipping laws, it is important to bear in mind that the entire oil spill and salvage response was mobilized for a vessel not designed to fit into any port within Mauritius and was not even scheduled to stop in Mauritius. It was a vessel for whom the global shipping industry had demanded ‘free right of passage’ through Mauritian waters, and close to well-known international biodiversity hotspots and whale nursing grounds.
With today’s satellite technologies and the internet, distance is no longer an excuse.
Why has global shipping or the authorities in Panama not invested in the leading-edge maritime control center – an Ocean Mission Control? It would then have become immediately clear to any official that one of the biggest single-hull vessels with over 1 million gallons of heavy engine oil, was being dragged for almost a kilometer across a sharp coral reef system for 12 days. Even the most junior mariner would have known the risks this now posed.
Is Panama equipped?
Panama prides itself on having the largest ship registry in the world, but it is clear they have not invested in the systems, processes, or technologies needed to build a safer and cleaner global maritime environment of vessels under their supervision.
The world needs a radically new governance structure amid both a climate and coronavirus crisis.
The global shipping industry is certainly not giving any indication that its current structures are fit for purpose nor agile enough to be part of a safer future whereas we saw with the Wakashio – interventions in the early days when the magnitude of how big a risk it represented was clear to most international experts and could have made all the difference in avoiding this ecological and now human catastrophe.
In a press release on 16 August, entitled ‘The truth about the Mauritius Island and the Ship Registry’ the Panama Maritime Authority responded to a popular video circulating on social media, saying “The Panama Ship Registry, the world’s leader in a number of vessels and tonnage, is also a leader in environmental safety and labor conventions and abides by all the international conventions established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labor Organization.”
So perhaps it is the very regulations of the IMO itself that are at fault. If it is true that the Panama Maritime Authorities had faithfully and fully implemented these IMO regulations, how could the Wakashio disaster have happened?
Panama’s unanswered questions
Whilst the Panama Maritime Authority had issued a strongly worded Press Release on 16 August to rebut any criticism, this still does not explain their Press Release on 12 August.
So there are four unanswered questions that the world expects to be revealed in any inquiry:
- Are the Panama Maritime Regulatory Authorities able to independently verify statements issued by vessels and their owner (in the same way that private satellite analytics companies are able to do), or is it only reliant on industry self-reporting?
- Do Panama Authorities have the capability to remotely assess whether any of the vessels they are responsible, are in danger of any sort, and can immediately make an assessment of other associated risks? For example, had authorities in Mauritius been immediately informed that one of the biggest ships in the sea was carrying 1 million gallons of engine oil in a single hull vessel, perhaps there would have been a swifter response, avoiding such an ecological disaster and better ensuring the safety of first responders.
- Even after satellite analysis was published on 9 August, 3 days before the Panama Maritime Authority’s (PMA) Press Release, why has PMA not issued a further statement or clarification on any statements by the PMA that could be viewed as misleading, such as stating that the vessel that had been performing “various maneuvers to change course due to the state of the sea. All maneuvers were supervised by the captain and first officer of the ship who were aware of the situation and weather conditions.”
- How seriously did Panama regulators take safety at sea concerns, such as ensuring multiple fail-safes and strong cyber-security, and how effective was Panama’s supervision of such measures, beyond the self-certification statements that the PMA made in its press release “The bulk carrier Wakashio… has all its valid technical certification, issued by the NKCLASS (Nippon Kaiji Kyokai) Classification Society.” Going on to say “Therefore, the ship, both in its structure and equipment, complies with the International Conventions established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).”
While a proportion of the disaster may be attributed to some form of the human factor (which a Nagashiki Shipping representative had implied in a written response to Forbes on 18 August), there are also broader systemic errors that could have led to this tragedy. Such an inquiry needs to cover these points and be done so in a way that is radically more transparent than the Wakashio operation has been so far.
A nation and the world are demanding greater transparency, but what is being revealed is a global shipping industry that is desperately trying to slink further and further back into the shadows.
The Panama Maritime Authorities have been approached for a comment, but messages remain unanswered.
Panama Authorities on way to Mauritius
In a statement by the Panama Maritime Authority on 17 August, a high powered delegation from Panama was revealed to be preparing to fly to Mauritius.
“The Minister of Maritime Affairs, Naval Architect Noriel Araúz, accompanied by the General Director of Merchant Marine of the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP), Engineer Rafael Cigarruista, lead the Panamanian delegation that will travel to Mauritius in the next few days to strengthen collaboration with the authorities of that insular country affected by an oil spill from the Wakashio ship, registered in Panama by a Japanese company. The group will be joined by a delegation led by Japanese experts sent by the Japan Shipowners Association (JSA) with the aim of working in a coordinated way in the pertinent investigations to clarify the causes that could have resulted in the grounding and the subsequent oil spill.”
This means there will be officials conducting an investigation, embarrassed by issuing conflicting statements that have added to the local confusion, now being asked to conduct an investigation that may also need to include investigating themselves.
The global shipping industry generated over $3 trillion in revenues in 2019 and is a critical part of the infrastructure in most countries of the world. Where is the strong, international independent investigation team that can ensure there can be no risk of a cover-up, given all the conflicts of interest that are now in play?
Trust was broken over how Wakashio’s salvage and oil spill was handled, and leaders in the global maritime industry appear to be in no hurry to build it back up.
Pressure on IMO mounting over the role in the sinking of Wakashio
At the same time as controversy surrounds Panama, the pressure is starting to mount on the UN Shipping Regulator, the International Maritime Organization, over its role in the decision to sink the Wakashio.
The original request of support from the Government of Mauritius was very specific: IMO support only for the oil spill response (confirmed by a spokesperson for the IMO on 21 August). This scope meant that the IMO specialists sent over (arriving on 11 August in Mauritius, five days after oil had started leaking from the vessel), did not have the mandate to offer any advice on operations other than specifically the oil spill response and containment.
When requests from Governments are made to regulators like the IMO, specialists are sent out based on the scope and nature of the challenge being faced. In Mauritius’ case, the Wakashio was a very large and complex vessel, and it was unclear whether the specialists sent out by the IMO had the specialized background to offer any assistance beyond immediate oil spill response and containment.
Role of IMO specialist advisers in Mauritius
This was confirmed by a spokesperson at the IMO on 21 August, in response to these questions asked by Forbes, where it was confirmed that the role of the IMO specialist was limited only to providing advice specifically on “oil pollution response matters.”
The spokesperson further confirmed that the role of the IMO specialist did not advise or help evaluate options on the disposal of the Wakashio (as the Government had earlier confirmed there was no longer any oil in the broken forward section of the vessel), nor did the IMO expert advise on or endorse the decision to scuttle the Wakashio at the location that was decided upon, or advise any concerns about any potential toxins or implications of Maritime Pollution (Marpol) regulations.
This is why this all matters
If the IMO specialist (appointed by the UN regulator of global shipping) was offering advice beyond the mandate that had been agreed between the IMO and the Government of Mauritius, at what point was a change of scope agreed (there was no public statement since the grounding on 25 July about any change of scope of the IMO specialist’s mission). If there was a change of scope, did the IMO specialist on the ground, have the appropriate background to be making such recommendations. For example, was the IMO specialist aware of the locations of marine mammal nursing and feeding grounds around the coast of Mauritius during the winter months, or was the specialist fully aware of the entire content of the vessel including internal construction materials. Vessels sunk eventually degrade, and as has been seen in many parts of the world, could potentially release even more toxic substances over many decades in the marine environment, and are now much more complex to extract (especially at 2 kilometers depth as had been reported).
If, on the other hand, it was, in fact, the case that the IMO specialist was legitimately offering the Government of Mauritius advice on the disposal of the ‘Forward section’ of the Wakashio, then this would imply there was actually a risk of additional ‘oil pollution’ from the Forward section of the Wakashio. Then this is new information and reveals that there could have been a risk of additional oil pollution by sinking the forward section of the Wakashio.
Which is it?
Given the potential conflicts of interest, and also given that the IMO itself is responsible for setting in place the maritime pollution standards, called MARPOL, an internal investigation would be seen as a cover-up in the eyes of the world.
There has to be a comprehensive and independent investigation, given how catastrophic the events of the Wakashio has been to the people, marine life and wildlife of Mauritius, and the shock expressed at the events around the Wakashio.
Conflict of interest if IMO has to investigate itself
Assuming that the IMO specialist had the necessary competence to focus on the oil spill, even bigger questions are being raised.
The IMO is the global regulator that allowed low sulfur fuels to be used in shipping, such as the VLSFO engine fuel in the Wakashio incident. However, a spokesperson from the IMO revealed to Forbes on 18 August, that the IMO does not have a full understanding of the long term implications of the VLSFO fuel in the sunnier climates of the Indian Ocean, where the oil spill has taken place.
The IMO statement went on to say, “because this fuel is so new, research has only just been initiated on its fate and behavior in the environment, particularly over a longer period. We know that some of the oil companies are financing research on this, and oil research centers e.g. CEDRE and SINTEF, have initiated work, but we don’t have any concrete information on this as yet, given the relative newness of these bunkers.” While mentioning that actions of a containment phase would be similar in any oil spill, the spokesperson went on to say, “It’s really the longer-term fate and effects that are not yet known.“
Given that no oil spill cleanup ever catches 100% of the oil spilled into the environment, this statement is concerning.
Risks exposed by new technologies
Advances in new technologies, such as advanced genomics, have revealed far more widespread risks of such fuels in accidents elsewhere. In San Francisco Bay in 2007, the large container ship, Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge amid thick cloud, spilling 54,000 gallons, one-quarter of the amount leaked from the Wakashio (the final spill amount has still not been released 11 days after the last assessment). Tests conducted by marine scientists revealed that such bunker fuel used by the global shipping industry to power their ships was more toxic than crude oil when exposed to sunlight, a phenomenon known as enhanced photo-toxicity under UV light, and releasing previously unidentified harmful chemicals called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH for short) that caused extreme damage to wildlife.
So at the heart of this investigation into the role of the IMO, two important questions need to be addressed:
- How can the global regulator of shipping (IMO) be allowing such toxic fuels to be used by vessels where the regulators themselves do not know the long term impacts?
- Given these risks, why was the global shipping regulator (IMO) allowing high volumes of such fuels to be transported in the much riskier single-hull vessels, banned around Antarctica, when double-hulled vessels would have significantly reduced the extent of the damage in Mauritius?
- If the world had moved more rapidly toward alternative carbon-free or even electrified vessels, would the impact of the grounding of the MV Wakashio be as serious as it is?
It is almost a month (28 days) since almost 1 million gallons of VLSFO sat off the pristine reefs of Mauritius. Islanders in Mauritius have been calling for help to try to understand the risks they face. 28 days later as over 30 kilometers of Mauritius’ pristine beaches remain ‘heavily damaged’ (according to the UN), and arsenic levels have jumped 500% in local fish, the silence and inaction of global shipping on this matter has been stunning.
Expensive consultants being funded rather than islanders’ needs
There are thousands of islanders who have to now suffer the smell of heavy oil in the air and in their lungs each day and whose primary source of protein – lagoon fish – has arsenic levels 500% higher than normal. These islanders have been calling for the most basic funding to support local scientific efforts to independently understand the risks.
Instead, significant funds have been spent on the fees of Global Crisis Communications firms, building expensive platforms for Oil Spill Response companies, and other media and legal reactive activities, leaving the islanders’ completely unsupported for their attempts to document the science.
Mauritius is not a forgotten wasteland. It is a middle-income country with a skilled workforce and had positioned itself as the Singapore of Africa. The scientists and population just need the equipment to handle a task they never expected to, in their own backyard.
The support that has been offered so far has significant strings attached – ‘specialist’ advisors with links to the polluting nation to perform ‘toxicology tests’ (that appear far from where ‘state of the art’ should be, incidentally) or technology platforms funded by the oil cleanup and shipping insurance industry who have arrived with deep marketing pockets that are undermining the efforts of Mauritian volunteers who had self-organized and developed local technology solutions. Such platforms do not even have clear ethical AI or data use policies. Again, a lack of transparency about all the actors and their motivations in the immediate aftermath of a major oil spill.
It appears that every aspect of the global governance of shipping seems broken and not fit for purpose to meet the needs of ordinary citizens, such as the simple fishing families who had lived on the coast of Mauritius for several centuries and had never taken action that could destroy such a large and important part of their habitat upon which they rely on. Celebrities and business leaders such as Sir Richard Branson are already calling on global shipping to do more for the island, and the need for bolder changes in global shipping.
With the anger seen following the Beirut Port explosion on 4 August (10 days after the Wakashio had been dragging of Mauritius’ barrier reefs), and the continuing ticking time bomb that is the abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, global shipping is looking distinctly like a relic of a bygone age.
The Wakashioa started off as an apparently innocent navigation accident. It is now turning into the embodiment of all that is wrong with global shipping today.
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