In the first session of the Maritime Safety Committee’s special session on mixed migration at sea today, a review of rescue regulations to clarify the role of ships in mass rescues at sea was called for by Italy, the UK, Malta, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), while the US and Norway urged caution.
Italy introduced the issue on the basis that there is no “harmonised interpretation” of the regulations, and particularly of the word “distressed”, which obliges ships to assist other vessels at sea.
“It is time to open a discussion and overcome the discretionary power for intervention, which today is the result of different interpretations of this concept,” said the head of Italy’s delegation.
The UK recounted a recent incident to highlight the problem that supports a review of regulations in the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and SOLAS.
Two weeks’ ago, a UK-flagged container ship was requested by a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) to render assistance to a small craft and crew in distress in a position south of Crete. While the vessel attended and observed that the small craft was travelling at a speed of 6-9 kts with 20-30 people on board, all attempts to establish contact failed and the small craft repeatedly turned away from the ship.
However, after sending this report to the MRCC, the container ship was further requested by the MRCC to approach the craft, photograph it, and send the photographs to the MRCC.
“The master undertook this instruction and advised his company, which in turn very wisely instructed the master not to get any closer than necessary in order to take the photographs in order to secure the safety and security of the ship,” said the UK’s head of delegation.
The incident continued – the master again confirmed that he had not been able to make contact with the craft and that it continued to manoeuvre away from his vessel. The ship’s operators asked the MRCC how long their vessel would be on standby and was told that the ship must standby under the authority of the MRCC as an emergency situation could develop within minutes. The ship was told to stay in place until a suitable vessel was able to take over.
However, even when another vessel was found and deviated to the position, the UK vessel was told two things: that another MRCC would be taking over and that the craft did not need assistance and that the second vessel had been released. Two hours later, another vessel was instructed to standby.
The whole incident for the UK-flagged vessel lasted nine hours and according to the ICS and the Maltese delegation, this incident was not an isolated one.
The UK head of delegation said that the flag state is “quite clear” on a ship’s obligations under SOLAS and UNCLOS, and that its vessels meet those obligations, but clarified that if a ship has made contact with a vessel under orders of an MRCC and if no assistance is accepted, “which would include the ship failing to respond to an offer of assistance, it must be the case that any obligation under SOLAS Chapter 5, Regulation 33 has been discharged and the ship is able to proceed on its way”.
The head of delegation said, “The UK feels that it may be useful to provide some clarity in respect to the request made for a ship to remain in proximity to another ship on the off-chance that an emergency or distress situation may occur, as this delegation is aware that there are different views of what the legal obligations are.
“It is our view that if in the view of the master of the requested vessel that it has been ascertained that no assistance is requested which would include a ship failing to respond to an offer of assistance, or that the threshold to render assistance has not been met, then there is no legal obligation for the vessel to stand by for prolonged periods of time.”
Malta backed the calls from Italy and the UK. “We would like to highlight the UK incident [as] exactly the reason why we insist that the legal regime should be revisited,” said the country’s head of delegation. He added that the suggestion is not to immediately amend the regulations, but to ensure they are “adequate enough for today’s realities”.
Shipping associations ICS and BIMCO both support a review and clarification of the regulations.
Citing “numerous examples” in the last year of mass rescues involving “several hundred migrants at a time”, the ICS said, “Despite the impressive response by the shipping industry and confirmation of its commitment to rescuing those in distress, it should be recognised that neither UNCLOS article 98 1 and 2 nor SOLAS Chapter 5 requirements were conceived to address the current situation of large scale rescue.”
The organisation said that the MRCC’s direction of the UK flagged vessel to conduct “surveillance rather than a rescue and recovery” is not “an isolated occurrence” and is of “serious concern” because UNCLOS and SOLAS regulations are “for the immediate purpose of saving lives [and] have no provision for ships to be tasked with carrying [out] surveillance operations”.
BIMCO said that it has “great fears and concerns that a growing reliance on industry for search and rescue [SAR] could lead to a disaster in the near future”. The head of delegation said it was of concern that industry might start to be viewed as an “institutionalised” part of the process when it should be seen “as temporary”.
“We have growing concerns for the security and safety of our vessels,” said BIMCO.
Norway and the US urged caution in the review of current legislation. Norway said that care should be taken to ensure that any revisions were complementary to other international instruments, avoiding duplication or conflict.
Figures from the ICS on merchant ship rescues in 2015 show 302 ships (“virtually two ships per day”) diverted to assist in SAR operations. Between January and May, 13,475 people had been rescued by merchant ships. Italy’s figures for this year show that 300 commercial ships of all flags have participated in SAR operations and rescued 15,000 people in total.