Australia also culprit in global crisis of seafarers stranded at sea

Crew need to be recognised as key workers to limit the impact to global trade. Credit: Ed Vroom

As nations lock down their borders against the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Australia has been singled out as part of the problem, according to representatives from Shipping Australia Limited (SAL).

“Crew changes are down to zero,” said Melwyn Noronha, SAL deputy CEO. “I hope common sense prevails. I’m an ex-seafarer and I know what it’s like to spend 11 months on a ship then someone fails to turn up and you have to stay on. It has a flow-on effect. Fatigue becomes a big issue and that impacts on ship safety.”

One such case involved a seafarer who arrived at Sydney Airport to join his ship at Port Botany, but was forced into 14 days of isolation in a hotel. By the time he was free to go, his ship had already sailed.

“This is just one example of an absurd outcome from restrictive rules”, said Rod Nairn, SAL CEO.  “If the intent was to keep New South Wales (NSW) safe, surely the seafarer leaving immediately on a ship would be better than putting him on a bus with other people and transferring him to a distant hotel?”

The debacle does not just affect international seafarers, but interstate domestic crew changes within the Australian oil and gas industry.

On 9 April, Australia’s National Cabinet agreed that crew on cargo vessels would be exempted from border restrictions; however, individual states are unilaterally making their own decisions.

“It’s quite frustrating,” Noronha told SAS. “NSW, Victoria, and Western Australia are digging their heels in. I’m writing to the premiers again today.”

Academic research has shown the impact on families when seafarers can’t return to their homes.  Seafarers stranded at sea can also succumb to mental illness. According to the most recent Seafarers Happiness Index, the restriction on crew changes has negatively impacted stress as well as crew happiness levels, dropping from 6.39 in Q4 2019 to 6.30 in Q1 2020.

No planes are coming in to Australia, except charter flights. So, SAL is lobbying for all state governments to agree to a monthly charter flight for about 400+ seafarers to be flown in and out. Incoming crew should be allowed to transfer to individual ports by domestic flights without all the quarantine, Noronha argues, citing the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The IMO has called for all seafarers, holding professional documentation, to be designated as key workers and granted exemptions from travel restrictions so they are able to leave and join their ships.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just about helping seafarers, it’s about facilitating trade,” said Noronha. “It’s a global issue, and everyone has got to play their part. You can’t go all the way to Singapore to do a crew change.”

An estimated 150,000 seafarers are currently trapped on ships at sea. This is despite calls from the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Maritime Employers Council, the IMO, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, for ports to allow free movement for crew members.