Sanchi setback follows decades of safety improvements

The sinking of the Sanchi sinking is one of the worst shipping casualties in years. Photo: China Ministry of Transport
The sinking of the Sanchi sinking is one of the worst shipping casualties in years. Photo: China Ministry of Transport

When the Sanchi burned and sank in the waters between China and Japan, and all hands were lost, it recalled an earlier era when shipping disasters were far more commonplace. It was a stark reminder that despite all the safety gains of the past decades, there is still a long way to go.

The Suezmax was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate (akin to a very light, sweet crude), making this one of the largest shipping oil spills in history. All 32 crew (30 Iranians, 2 Bangladeshis) are presumed dead.

Data on shipping oil spills is compiled by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF). For statistical purposes, the organisation defines spill size based upon the total oil volume injected into the environment, including oil that may have burned off during the accident or that remains contained within a submerged hull.

Given the amount of oil aboard Sanchi, the current spill ranks as the sixth largest by this measure, and the largest in 27 years (in terms of actual petroleum contaminating the water, it may rank lower, because a considerable portion of its cargo is believed to have burned off prior to the ship’s sinking).

The Sanchi casualty follows several other high-profile casualties in commercial shipping during recent years, including the sinking of Polaris Shipping’s converted very large ore carrier Stellar Daisy in the Atlantic Ocean on 31 March 2017, killing 22 of 24 crew (14 Filipinos, eight South Koreans), and the sinking of the Jones Act container ship El Faro in Hurricane Joaquin on 1 October 2015, killing all 33 onboard (28 Americans, five Poles).

What is different about the latest string of incidents as opposed the casualties of earlier decades is how rare they have become – with the caveat that any accidents at all are considered too many. International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) director of policy and external relations Simon Bennett told IHS Markit, “There has been a dramatic improvement in safety and environmental performance over the last 25-30 years, although sadly, as we’ve seen in China, tragedies do still occur. The goal is always zero accidents, but we all recognise that ships are operating in very difficult sea environments that involve a great degree of physical risk.”

IHS Markit analysed data compiled by IHS Markit Maritime & Trade (M&T) since 1980 to put the latest casualty into historical context. One measure is the annual number of commercial vessels deemed total constructive losses, excluding passenger and fishing vessels. There were 369 in 1980 – or over one per day – and 96 in 2017. Over the 37-year period, total losses declined 74%, or 3.6% per year on a compound annual basis.

These statistics significantly understate the safety gains because the overall number of vessels in commercial operations has substantially increased over time. IHS Markit M&T has collected annual data on the total number of commercial-shipping vessels in operation since 1997. Over that 20-year period, the number of vessels at sea has increased by 33%. Total losses due to casualties represented 0.18% of the global fleet in 1997 (1.8 losses per thousand ships) and 0.069% in 2017 (0.69 per thousand, or 6.9 per 10,000).

Total vessel losses due to a collision – as was the case with Sanchi – have fallen by an even greater degree, when measured in relation to the size of the overall fleet. The annual rate of total losses in relation to the global fleet has decreased by 61% since 1997; the rate of total losses due to collisions versus the overall fleet has fallen by 80% over the same period.

IHS Markit M&T also compiles data on the number of seafarers killed or lost at sea (whether in casualties, workplace accidents, or otherwise). These statistics reveal major improvements as well. Excluding crew of passenger and fishing vessels, there were 528 seafarers killed or presumed dead in 1980 versus 26 in 2016 and 98 in 2017. Those reductions occurred in a period when the number of seafarers rose significantly.

As with total losses and seafarer deaths, the volume of oil spills from shipping has also shown a significant improvement over recent decades, even as the total volume of oil transported by sea has risen sharply. According to ITOPF, there was an average of 319,200 tonnes/year spilled by ships in the 1970s, 117,400 tonnes/year in the 1980s, 113,300 tonnes/year in the 1990s, just 19,600 tonnes/year in 2001-09, and an even lower 5,750 tonnes/year in 2010-17. The Sanchi casualty will push 2018 numbers up to levels that have not been seen for decades.

“There’s no excuse for complacency, but things have gotten better,” maintained Bennett. “Over the last decade, you may have seen two serious oil spills a year. This contrasts with between 25 and 30 serious oil spills a year 25-30 years ago.

“The direction is one of continuous improvement, which has been driven by many things, but certainly there has been a significant tightening of regulations at the IMO,” he continued, highlighting the implantation of the International Safety Management Code and major revisions to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. “It’s difficult to extrapolate the exact correlation, but there’s a clear match in the downward trajectory of serious safety and pollution incidents and the implementation of those two very important set of regulations,” he said.

Jim Lawrence, co-founder of crisis communications agency MTI Network, also pointed to the positive impact of the US Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90). “Everyone complained about OPA 90 at the start, but it has actually done what it set out to do,” Lawrence told IHS Markit. “It certainly focused everyone’s attention, because of the punitive liability regime associated with it, and I also think it brought better training and better processes, both ashore and onboard.”

MTI Network was set up by Patrick Adamson and Lawrence in the wake of OPA 90 to allow shipping companies to better respond to the press and affected communities in the wake of accidents. This has provided Lawrence with a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective on how industry casualty practices have evolved over the past two-and-a-half decades.

“It is night and day,” he said of the change over time, asserting, “The industry has invested heavily in processes and training to make sure it is safer.” Because of this evolution and the overall decline in casualties, MTI’s business mix today is more focused on pre-emptive media training services and less so on post-casualty responses than in the past.

Bennett also highlighted major improvements in terms of flag states and port state control. “There has been a significant change when it comes to the responsibility of flag states,” he maintained. “When I first joined the industry 25 years ago, I think there were still legitimate questions about the seriousness of some of the more exotic open registries that emerged on the scene. Now, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of ships operate under flag states that take their responsibilities very seriously and you no longer see a distinction between a traditional European flag state and an open registry. The concept of substandard operators hiding behind substandard flag states has disappeared, or largely disappeared.

“There is also a much more sophisticated system of port state control,” he continued, noting that “it is increasingly difficult for substandard operators to operate within the main trading areas, because governments have very sophisticated databases targeting information about substandard ships. That’s another important strand of the story, where there has been a real improvement over the past 25 years.”

From a human and ecological perspective, the main impacts of shipping casualties are death and injuries among crew, and damage to wildlife, ecosystems, and coastal communities. From a business perspective, high-profile casualties can lead to negative reputational fallout for the shipowner and the industry at large.

In the latter case, this can, in turn, lead to region-specific regulations, legislation, and court rulings – fostering the ‘balkanisation’ of the regulatory regime as opposed to its centralisation under the auspices of the IMO. The US state of California is a case in point. The industry’s reputation was heavily damaged by the spill from the COSCO Busan in San Francisco Bay in November 2007, and shipping subsequently faced a slew of new regulations on issues unrelated to oil spills.

“The focus on this story [the Sanchi casualty] is the awful and appalling loss of life,” said Bennett. “Sadly though, and all too often, we find that it is only when you have a serious pollution incident that the global news media takes an interest in maritime casualties. And unfortunately, the kind of events that trigger inappropriate regulatory responses are often driven by environmental damage, not loss of life.”

Whether a high-profile casualty leads to regulatory balkanisation is largely a function of where it occurs, according to Bennett. “Some areas, rightly or wrongly, are more sensitive than others,” he explained. “So if you have a major pollution incident off the coast of California or off the coast of northwest Europe, the political and regulatory implications can potentially be much more dangerous.”

The goal of the ICS and the industry at large is to have any regulatory changes that improve safety done globally at the IMO, and to build up regional political capital to counter knee-jerk localised regulations.

According to Bennett, “The industry actually has built up its political capital with the regulators over the last 10-15 years, so in the unfortunate event that we do have another serious pollution incident [in Europe], I do think there will be less of a tendency among policymakers towards a knee-jerk reaction. There’s a better understanding that regrettably, serious safety incidents will sometimes still occur, and there should be a measured reaction to that incident.”

In Europe, he believes that the European Commission and the European Union member states “have a better understanding of the global regulatory framework for shipping than they did before, and they now see the actions they take in Europe as a complement to what the IMO does, rather than in competition to it”.

In the Asian market, he noted that “China, to its credit, has a very good record when it comes to adherence to and implementation of international IMO standards. The Chinese government actually has much less of a tendency to go for knee-jerk reactions and unilateral regulations that are at variance to what has been agreed at the IMO. We always find this interesting – the approach taken by the Chinese and this contrast” to the approach taken by some other jurisdictions.

The key, in the aftermath of the Sanchi casualty or any other incident, “is for due process to be followed through the IMO”, concluded Bennett. “There has to be a proper casualty investigation by the flag state, which is submitted to the IMO, and if there is a gap in the regulatory regime, then of course it is appropriate to propose how that can be improved.”


#1 – Atlantic Empress – 297,000 tonnes. Off the coast of Tobago, July 1979

#2 – ABT Summer – 260,000 tonnes. 700 n miles off Angola, May 1991

#3 – Castillo De Bellver – 252,000 tonnes. Off Saldanha Bay, South Africa, August 1983

#4 – Amoco Cadiz – 223,000 tonnes. Off Brittany, France, March 1978

#5 – Haven – 144,000 tonnes. Genoa, Italy, April 1991

#6 – Sanchi – 136,000 tonnes. 160 n miles off Shanghai, China, January 2018

#7 – Odyssey – 132,000 tonnes. 700 n miles off Nova Scotia, Canada, November 1988

#8 – Torrey Canyon – 119,000 tonnes. Scilly Islands, UK, February 1967

#9 – Sea Star – 115,000 tonnes. Gulf of Oman, December 1972

#10 – Irenes Serenade – 100,000 tonnes. Navarino Bay, Greece, February 1980

#11 – Urquiola – 100,000 tonnes. La Coruna, Spain, May 1976

#12 – Hawaiian Patriot – 95,000 tonnes. 300 n miles off Honolulu, Hawaii, February 1977

#13 – Independenta – 95,000 tonnes. Bosphorus, Turkey, November 1979

#14 – Jakob Maersk – 88,000 tonnes. Oporto, Portugal, January 1975

#15 – Braer – 85,000 tonnes. Shetland Islands, UK, January 1993

#16 – Aegean Sea – 74,000 tonnes. La Coruna, Spain, December 1992

#17 – Sea Empress – 72,000 tonnes. Milford Haven, UK, February 1996

#18 – Khark 5 – 70,000 tonnes. 120 n miles off Atlantic coast of Morocco, December 1989

#19 – Nova – 70,000 tonnes. Off Kharg Island, Gulf of Iran, December 1985

#20 – Katina P – 67,000 tonnes. Off Maputo, Mozambique, April 1992

Note: Volume is total amount of cargo that passes into environment, including fuel that burned off and fuel that remains in a sunken hull. All data from ITOPF except Sanchi data, which is based on published reports.