The latest bulk carrier casualty report from Intercargo reveals that seafarers currently loading cargoes on specific trades in Asia are at high-risk from cargo liquefaction. It also highlights that Flag States tasked with filing timely reports into casualties — a process designed to help prevent future tragedies — are continuing to neglect their duties, writes Michael King. 

Last year the global bulk carrier fleet  suffered 337 ‘incidents’ including two major casualties, according to the latest Bulk Carrier Report by Intercargo Shipowners.
The two casualties were, of course, the loss of the 266,141dwt Stellar Daisy in the South Atlantic in April last year with 22 crew presumed dead, and the sinking of the 57,000dwt bulk carrier Emerald Star on the morning of 13 October with 26 seafarers on board. Sixteen Emerald Star crew members were rescued but the remaining ten crew are still missing and presumed dead. 

The presumed deaths of 32 seafarers last year made 2017 the worst in terms of loss of lives on bulk carriers since 2011. The loss of the Stellar Daisy, a Very Large Ore Carrier shipping iron ore from Brazil, is thought to have been related to flooding. A casualty investigation is ongoing and, independently, South Korea and China are conducting inspections of all converted VLOCs to check the structural stability of the vessel class, while Brazil’s Port State Control has committed to inspecting all VLOCs at its ports before loading.

The Emerald Star capsized after loading nickel ore in Buli, Indonesia, for delivery to China. The vessel sank just 150 nautical miles north-east of the Philippines. If the cause of the casualty is finally shown, as expected, to have been caused by cargo liquefaction, then no one involved with shipping or commodities should be surprised. Indeed, The Economist tagged the trade of nickel ore from Indonesia to China — a minuscule proportion of the total dry bulk moved by sea each year — shipping’s ‘Deadly Trade’ as long ago as 2013. The article was prompted after it was found that this backwater trade accounted for four of the 20 bulk freighters lost worldwide during 2010/11, and for 66 of 82 deaths. All four casualties were attributed to liquefaction of the cargo and all four ships had loaded during Indonesia’s rainy season.

Intercargo is certainly very well aware of the trend. It noted that 53 bulk carriers over 10,000dwt were identified as total losses over the years 2008 to 2017, with nine of the 53 attributed to cargo liquefaction. “Cargo shift and liquefaction continues to be a great concern for the life of seafarers and the safe carriage of dry bulk cargoes,” said its latest report. “Those nine casualties of suspected cargo failure consisted of six bulk carriers carrying nickel ore from Indonesia, two vessels with laterite (clay) iron ore from India and one with bauxite from Malaysia. There were 101 lives lost associated with the nine casualties of cargo failure against a total of 202 lives for all the 53 casualties.”

What Intercargo failed to note was that the number of vessels and lives lost could easily have been far higher if Indonesia
had not banned the export of unrefined nickel ore and bauxite in 2014 in a bid to force miners to process more cargo in-country. Nickel ore exports slumped almost overnight, hugely increasing the safety of seafarers as a by-product. However, at the start of 2017, the ban was removed as Indonesia’s government tried to reduce its budget deficit.

When approached by DCi last summer, the IMO and Intercargo were not fully aware of the impending menace to seafarers posed by the Indonesian monsoon season which usually runs September to March. With miners holding heavy stocks of nickel ore and storage in Indonesia’s many remote ports almost always uncovered, the danger to crew was certain to increase once the rains commenced. The loss of the Emerald Star  sadly, predictably, followed.

Another concern highlighted by Intercargo’s latest report is the failure of Flag States to make public investigation reports into bulk carrier casualties that have resulted in the loss of life. The IMO’s mandatory Casualty Investigation Code does not give a specific timeline but refers to “as quickly as possible” and “as soon as is reasonably practicable” in terms of completing a marine safety investigation report after a casualty.

The Code specifies that the “marine safety investigating State(s) shall submit the final version of a marine safety investigation report to the Organization [IMO] for every marine safety investigation conducted into a very serious marine casualty”.

And it adds: “Where a marine safety investigation is conducted into a marine casualty or marine incident, other than a very serious marine casualty, and a marine safety investigation report is produced which contains information which may prevent or lessen the seriousness of marine casualties or marine incidents in the future, the final version shall be submitted to the Organization.”

A spokesperson at the IMO told DCi that while “every case is different, so it is impossible to set a strict timeline, as soon as possible is the message”.

However, as Intercargo notes, this is not happening. The IMO GISIS database of casualties at the end of January 2018 recorded that 29 investigation reports into 53 bulk carrier losses over 2008–2017 had not been submitted to IMO by their respective Flag States.

The highest loss of life on bulk carriers over 2008–2017 was attributed to cargo failure — liquefaction — resulting in 101 lives lost from nine casualties. Three of the nine investigation reports have not been submitted to IMO. Among the missing reports is one due from Vietnam into the loss of the Supramax vessel Vinalines Queen and its 22 crew in 2011. The vessel was carrying nickel ore loaded in Indonesia.

The most commonly reported cause of bulk carrier losses over the period was grounding, totalling 22 losses among the 53 cases. Ten investigation reports of those 22 cases have not been submitted to IMO. Six bulker losses over the period were attributed to ‘unknown causes’. These casualties accounted for 61 deaths but, shockingly, five investigation reports into the six vessel losses have not been submitted to IMO.

“Lessons learnt from past incidents play an important role in determining where additional safety improvement is necessary,” said Intercargo. “The import- ance of Flag States’ timely submission of casualty investigation reports to IMO should be stressed, as a means for identifying the cause of incidents and enabling corrective actions to be taken.”