Ship Crew In Crosshairs: Piracy, Kidnappings, Stranded By COVID
By Greg Miller of American Shipper
Working aboard a cargo ship ranks as one of the toughest, most emotionally taxing jobs in the global transportation industry. Saturday’s deadly pirate attack off the west coast of Africa is just the latest reminder.
Pirates boarded the Turkish-managed container ship Mozart on Saturday in the Gulf of Guinea. Crew took shelter in the “citadel,” the ship’s specially designated safe room. The attackers reportedly used explosives. The attackers killed one crewmember and kidnapped 15.
In 2009-2011, when modern-day piracy peaked, vessels were attacked in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia in East Africa. The Somali pirates held the ships as well as the crews for ransom. Vessel owners airdropped bales of cash to win their release.
The Somalis are largely out of the piracy business, courtesy of heavily armed private security forces and military intervention (see the movie “Captain Phillips”). Lawlessness at sea has since shifted to the waters off Nigeria and Southeast Asia.
The Nigerians do not hold the ships hostage like the Somalis did. Rather, they kidnap seafarers and hold them for ransom in the Niger Delta.
There were 195 attacks or attempted attacks on ships worldwide in 2020, up 13% year-on-year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). A total of 153 crewmembers were kidnapped last year, all but five in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
“Since 2019, the Gulf of Guinea has experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of multiple crew kidnappings,” said the IMB earlier this month.
“It is unacceptable in this day and age that seafarers cannot perform their jobs … without having to worry about the risk of piracy,” said Aslak Ross, head of marine standards at Maersk, in a statement sent to American Shipper. “The risk has reached a level where effective military capacity needs to be deployed.”
Kidnap fears on top of COVID fears
Crews have no control over where they work. If their ship is scheduled to transit the Gulf of Guinea, they have no choice but to accept the kidnapping risk.
The attack on the Mozart will be “deeply unsettling” to crew, said Christian Ayerst, CEO of Mental Health Support Solutions, a company that supports seafarers. “It’s likely to increase anxiety in the seafaring community, especially for those entering areas known for piracy attacks.”
Heightened kidnapping fears come on top of already high anxiety due to COVID. The pandemic has made it extremely difficult to bring in replacement seafarers. International labor conventions call for crew to work no more than one consecutive year at sea. But the pandemic has effectively removed that limit.
Up to 400,000 crewmembers have been forced to work beyond their original contract dates. Restrictions eased in the second half of last year but are retightening in 2021.
“The spread of new variants of COVID-19 in Brazil, South Africa and the U.K. is contributing to stricter crew change restrictions globally,” warned the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) last week.
“Seafarers are currently being severely impacted by crew change crisis, with some approaching two years stuck at sea. With limited support from national governments, there is real concern that, under new restrictions, this number will rapidly increase rather than reduce,” said ICS, which is pleading for seafarers to be given priority vaccinations.
Crew stranded for six months off China
COVID isn’t the only thing stranding crew aboard the ships. A diplomatic spat between Australia and China drags on — yet another threat to seafarers’ mental health. China has informally banned imports of Australian coal since last year. This has stranded around 70 laden bulk ships, many of which remain at anchor in frigid conditions off the coast of Northern China.
A New York Times article described a humanitarian crisis for crew aboard these ships. According to one stranded crewmember: “One of the guys tried to commit suicide. It’s terrifying. We all are scared.” Another crewmember added: “Most of the guys … don’t come out from their cabins and they are thinking about the worst case possible.”
Braemar ACM Shipbroking reported on Monday that Chinese authorities are “signaling that the ban will remain in place for the foreseeable future.” As a result, “Chinese buyers of these cargoes have sought to sell them in other markets.” There are still 66 bulkers at anchor, down nine ships week on week.
Seafarers caught in the middle of the China-Australia dispute have been stranded for a staggeringly long period of time. According to Braemar, these ships have already been at anchor for an average of six months.
Mon, 01/25/2021 – 17:50