Shipping industry faces its own “Deepwater Horizon moment”

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The shipping industry is on the cusp of its own “Deepwater Horizon moment”, in the event of a mega containership casualty – this according to one prominent maritime lawyer, who has cited limited salvage capabilities and a demanding legal environment as barriers in tackling such an event.

Speaking at a Maritime London lunchtime function on 11th January, Andrew Chamberlain, Partner at Holman Fenwick Willan, said the consequences of a serious incident involving one of the larger containerships “may well result in a complete change in the accepted liability regimes and even the traditionally accepted insurance arrangements for such large vessels.” 

The largest vessels sailing today are carrying over 15,000 containers and when compared to casualties such as the MSC Napoli or the Rena, which carried 4,688 and 3,352 containers respectively, Mr Chamberlain’s concerns over a larger incident may be well-founded.

He told an audience of maritime professionals, including salvors, insurers and ship owners, that in the event of the loss of the largest class of containership, the epic scale of the incident would mean the salvage industry would struggle to deal with the removal of the containers and wreckage. He warned that the salvage industry had limited and ageing resources, was increasingly risk averse and today, consists of only around four or five companies with a genuine global capability. 

He noted that the legal environment for dealing with these types of incidents was becoming increasingly demanding with rising claims, disproportionately high clean-up costs and the near impossibility of disposing or recycling of a wreck thanks to the restrictive legal regime now imposed by the 1996 Protocol to the London Dumping Convention and the OSPAR Convention, combined with the absence of suitable recycling facilities.

He added: “The industry is facing the perfect storm. We have a global recession, high cargo values (relative to ship values), ever larger and untested ships, environmental concerns and increasing public and government awareness of the impact of shipping incidents. Since the Napoli in 2007 any marine casualty is much more likely to be on the front page of every newspaper.”