What happens when a ship in distress requires a "place of refuge"?
In the aftermath of the incident involving the fully laden tanker Castor which, in December 2000, developed a structural problem in the Mediterranean Sea, IMO Secretary-General William O'Neil suggested that the time had come for the Organization to undertake, as a matter of priority, a global consideration of the problem of places of refuge for disabled vessels and adopt any measures required to ensure that, in the interests of safety of life at sea and environmental protection, coastal States reviewed their contingency arrangements so that such ships are provided with assistance and facilities as might be required in the circumstances.
Following a decision by IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) that, at present, the issue should be considered from the operational safety point of view, the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation has prepared two draft Assembly resolutions which are for approval by the MSC early next month. They include a set of Guidelines which state clearly what actions should be taken by ships' Masters, coastal States and Flag States in cases where ships are in need of assistance. They also recommend the establishment by coastal States of Maritime Assistance Services to be mobilized in relevant cases. They have been designed to provide a framework by which Governments will be able to assess each case on its merits and make the most appropriate decisions.
Work on places of refuge
In May 2002, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) at its 75th session, approved, in principle, the proposed general framework concerning future work on places of refuge developed by the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation (NAV).
Future work places high priority on the safety of all involved in any operation concerning the provision of places of refuge, with due attention to all environmental aspects associated with these operations. This will include the preparation of guidelines for:
· actions a master of a ship should take when in need of a place of refuge (including actions on board and actions required in seeking assistance from other ships in the vicinity, salvage operators, flag State and coastal States).
· the evaluation of risks, including the methodology involved, associated with the provision of places of refuge and relevant operations in both a general and a case by case basis; and
· actions expected of coastal States for the identification, designation and provision of such suitable places together with any relevant facilities.
The Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation will co-ordinate the work, while input should also come from the Sub-Committee on Radiocommunications, Search and Rescue (COMSAR) and the Marine Environment protection Committee (MEPC).
Draft Assembly resolution on guidelines on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance
At its 48th session in July 2002, the NAV Sub-Committee agreed a draft Assembly resolution on guidelines on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance. The guidelines are intended for use when a ship is in need of assistance but safety of life is not involved. Where the safety of life is involved, the provisions of the SAR Convention should be followed.
The guidelines recognise that when a ship has suffered an incident, the best way of preventing damage or pollution from its progressive deterioration is to transfer its cargo and bunkers, and to repair the casualty. Such an operation is best carried out in a place of refuge. However, to bring such a ship into a place of refuge near a coast may endanger the coastal State, both economically and from the environmental point of view, and local authorities and populations may strongly object to the operation.
Therefore, granting access to a place of refuge could involve a political decision which can only be taken on a case-by-case basis with consideration of the balance between the advantage for the affected ship and the environment resulting from bringing the ship into a place of refuge and the risk to the environment resulting from that ship being near the coast.
The purpose of the guidelines is to provide shipmasters, shipowners (particularly in connection with the ISM Code), salvors and Member Governments with a framework enabling them to respond effectively and in such a way that, in any given situation, the efforts of the master and owner of the ship and the efforts of the government authorities are complementary. In particular, an attempt has been made to arrive at a common framework for assessing the situation of ships in need of assistance.
Draft Assembly resolution on the establishment of Maritime Assistance Services
In connection with the subject of places of refuge, another draft Assembly resolution on the establishment of Maritime Assistance Services was agreed, for information of the MSC, MEPC and the Legal Committee, with a view to adoption by the 23rd session of the IMO Assembly, in november 2003, following finalization by NAV 49.
The resolution recommends that all coastal States should establish a maritime assistance service (MAS). The principal purposes would be to receive the various reports, consultations and notifications required in a number of IMO instruments; monitoring a ship’s situation if such a report indicates that an incident that may give rise to a situation whereby the ship may be in need of assistance; serving as the point of contact if the ship’s situation is not a distress situation but nevertheless requires exchanges of information between the ship and the coastal State, and for serving as the point of contact between those involved in a marine salvage operation undertaken by private facilities if the coastal State considers that it should monitor all phases of the operation.
According to the draft Assembly resolution, the services of a MAS might be required in situations where the safety of life is not directly threatened, for example if a ship is involved in an incident (e.g. loss of cargo, accidental discharge of oil) that does not impair its seakeeping ability but nevertheless has to be reported; or, according to its master’s assessment, is in need of assistance but not in a distress situation that requires the rescue of those on board; or is found to be in a distress situation and those on board have already been rescued, with the possible exception of those, who have remained aboard or have been placed on board to attempt to deal with the ship’s situation;
The establishment of a MAS should
not entail the setting up of a new organization. Insofar as the present guidelines are observed, the functions of the MAS could be discharged by an existing organization, such as an MRCC, a harbour master’s office, a coast guard operations centre (if one exists) or another body, according to the guidelines.
The fact that the resolution recommends every coastal State to establish a MAS should not prevent neighbouring coastal States from combining their resources under suitable arrangements to operate a joint MAS.
Governments of coastal States that have established a MAS are asked to forward to the IMO Secretariat the details (call numbers, call signs, etc) of their MAS for IMO to circulate such particulars so that eventually shipmasters and other persons or organizations concerned can make contact with it.