Prestige, an oil tanker laden with heavy fuel, broke in two and plunged three thousand five hundred meters to the bottom of the sea off Spain in November 2002. The ship spilt some five thousand tonnes of oil, with over 65,000 tonnes of oil still trapped in the sunken wreckage. Environmentalists fear that this is one of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worst oil spill accidents since Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.
Meanwhile, Spain approached France to send a mini submarine to the ocean floor to check if the tanker was still leaking oil. Spanish and Portuguese navies have already begun patrolling their territorial waters to prevent single-hulled and ageing oil tankers from entering their waters. On its part, the European Union has published a list of sixty-six ships that it considers do not comply with maritime safety rules and wants them banned from EU ports. EU Transportation Commissioner Loyola de Palacio has noted that if maritime safety rules drawn up in 1999 after a similar oil spill off the coast of France are not applied vigorously, there will be more such catastrophes.
The Prestige incident has raised three important issues. First, the ship was an aging single-hull model, built in the 1970s in Japan with cheap steel. Importantly, the shipÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hull had already cracked once; and, repairs put it back into navigation. In recent years, advancements in technology have greatly improved the quality of the ships. The shipbuilding industry has made progress in terms of ship design, propulsion, navigation and habitability. However, the number of ship accidents at sea has increased. Among other reasons for the accidents, ship husbandry and age of ship has been a matter of concern. Between 1992 and 1999, a total of 593 ships were lost at sea; among which 77 were oil tankers and 60 of these tankers lost were more than twenty years old. International agreements require all tankers built since 1996 to have a double hull. But the powerful shipping and oil industries have managed to keep most of the older single-hull tankers out of the pact, allowing them to ply the seas until 2015. Many of these vessels are disasters waiting to happen.
Second, the Prestige had been chartered by an oil brokerage in London, headquartered in Geneva, but owned by one of the infamous Russian Ã¢â‚¬Å“oligarchsÃ¢â‚¬Â¯ in Moscow. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), it is virtually impossible to verify the authenticity of the identity of the owners and the crew. Crewmembers of vessels belong to different nationalities. Besides, there is a major problem regarding counterfeit and faulty mariner documentation. IMB has issued a warning to ship operators on the thousands of unqualified crew and masters working illegally with false papers, and has called for tighter scrutiny by authorities issuing certificates. The alert follows recent statistics reporting more than ten thousand cases of forged certificates of competency in 54 maritime administrations surveyed. Ships are sailed by crewmen with false passports and competency certificates. The IMB believes, at times, the issuing authorities themselves are to blame. For instance, the Coast Guard office in Puerto Rico was reported to have issued nearly 500 suspicious certificates of competency. Such cases usually escape detection by the port authorities. Besides, the ship owners are more than ready to hire low-wage crew.
Third, the Prestige was under the Ã¢â‚¬ËœFlag of ConvenienceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ (FOC) registry in Liberia but approved as seaworthy by shipping authorities in the United States. There are thirty countries that are known to offer FOC registry. These are essentially developing and small island states. According to industry experts, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœflag hoppingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ is a common practice and ship owners tend to switch registry at the first sign of crackdown by authorities or when engaged in illegal activities involving gun running, drug smuggling, transporting illegal cargo or human beings. Besides, FOC registries are a complex web of tax shelters, front companies, nationalities, overlapping jurisdictions and are known to play messy games. The world's biggest oil companies Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP Ã¢â‚¬â€œ routinely charter vessels like the Prestige to ship oil around the world. The International Transport Worker's Federation (ITF) Fair Practices Committee, a union of seafarers and dock workers campaigning against FOC believe that flag accountability will force ship owners to maintain international shipping standards, a practice that does not commonly occur with FOC ships.
In the wake of the Prestige tragedy, there are growing calls for stricter, swifter action. Given the political clout of the oil industry, draconian measures are unlikely. Nevertheless, more transparency is required in this vital but risky commerce and, governments must be made aware of the costs of marine and ecological disasters.
Meanwhile, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency concerned with safety of shipping and protection of the marine environment and ensuring ships comply with international standards including financial security, met from 2 to 13 December 2002 for the 76th session concurrently with a Diplomatic Conference on Maritime Security to establish a Working Group on Maritime Security. This Working Group will consider, among other issues such as double hull and side-skin ship construction and strength and corrosion control of merchant vessels, the Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch keeping for Seafarers (STCW) 1978.