THE threat posed by the criminalisation of seafarers has continued to increase in the past year despite efforts to work with authorities to tackle the issues.
The wide-ranging investigations launched after the containership Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge last November, some of which were reported to carry criminal law implications for the ship’s crew and pilot, have been cited by one leading P&I manger as a case in point.
Ian Gooch, a director of A Bilbrough & Co, managers of the London P&I Club, said Cosco Busan is a further unfortunate example of what appears to be a growing inclination on the part of some authorities and government agencies around the world to bring a criminal dimension into the investigation of shipping accidents.
Mr Gooch adds that such an approach is to the potential detriment of maritime safety and environmental protection for a variety of reasons — including the likelihood of it deterring the sort of able people that the industry needs from pursuing a seafaring career.
“The treatment of Capt Mangouras, master of the Prestige, and of members of the crew and salvage team of the Tasman Spirit are well-publicised examples of what seems to be an increasing tendency to focus on blame and the pursuit of individuals following shipping casualties,” he said.
“Other more recent cases also seem to illustrate the spread of ‘criminalisation’, including the very troubling — and widely deplored — prosecution and imprisonment of Capt Schroder of the containership Zim Mexico III in Mobile, Alabama.
“Now there are reports that inquiries into the Cosco Busan casualty include a criminal law aspect — and subsequent news from the National Transportation Safety Board that the ship’s crew have hired lawyers and declined to speak with the experienced accident investigators from that agency. Without such evidence, efforts to get to the bottom of the cause of the accident and to establish what can be done to stop it happening again have hit what has been described as a road block.”
Mr Gooch added: “The difficulty with this sort of blame culture is that while it may deliver short-term relief to those who have suffered as a result of an accident, it jeopardises the full investigation needed to understand what happened and to learn the lessons necessary to avoid repetition and suffering to others in the future.”
He contrasts the approach of the maritime industry with that in the aviation field, and the determination there to support an organised, well-ordered and open safety environment including, for example, an effective near-miss reporting system.
Mr Gooch said: “The focus in aviation is on the learning of lessons and on preventative intelligence which would otherwise remain invisible.
“The industry seems to have succeeded in persuading governments of the importance of prioritising the collecting of safety-related information and avoiding compromising the ability of investigators to get to the root cause of an accident.
“Take the recent crash-landing of a Boeing 777 passenger jet at Heathrow Airport. The complete focus of the response there — without the distracting shadow of any other inquiry — seems to have been on supporting the work of the Air Accident Investigation Branch’s investigators in gathering all the information required, including the evidence of the plane’s pilot and crew.”
In a related news event, the ITF has started a campaign of awareness regarding this stupid trend of “seafarer criminalisation”. They have published a poster (pictured) and related website with links to the IMO ILO documents outlining your rights a seafarer involved in maritime mishap. You can download these assets, and read more about it from the ITF website.