Australia to detain vessels if seafarers kept too long at sea

Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Credit: Graeme Bartlett

Ships could be prevented from departing Australian ports if crew have spent too long at sea.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) released the “Marine notice: Maximum period of shipboard service for seafarers during COVID-19” on 26 June 2020. It has since been widely distributed by Shipping Australia, representing international shipping lines in the trade.

AMSA sets out Australian port state control protocol on how long seafarers can serve on board a vessel without leave, under the Maritime Labour Convention, during the pandemic. AMSA has outlined that the maximum period a seafarer can work on board a vessel without taking leave is 14 months.

While acknowledging the challenges the industry faces as countries restrict their borders, the new regulations are motivated by concern over crew wellbeing and ship safety.

“Historically, a lack of fatigue management has contributed to a number of serious maritime accidents in Australia and abroad,” an AMSA spokesperson told SAS. “Fatigue was and still is contributing to short- and long-term performance and health impairment. It’s a risk to seafarers and safety at sea.”

“Managing fatigue is more important now than ever before in these challenging times,” the spokesperson added.

To date, both flag and port states have been flexible during the pandemic, extending crew contracts, where crew changes have been insurmountable.

“While this flexibility has been essential to supporting international trade, it cannot continue indefinitely,” the marine notice cautioned.

AMSA will now only exempt vessels beyond the 14-month maximum period if the master or shipowner showed that all possible efforts were made to repatriate the seafarer, but were unsuccessful. Additionally, AMSA stipulated the seafarer must provide a written confirmation of accepting the extension beyond the initial contract term.

Otherwise, crew must now be given accommodation on shore until they can return home. Ships left without safe crew numbers will be banned from leaving port until fresh crew are flown in.

Currently, AMSA has not detained any ships for failing to facilitate crew changes during the pandemic, a spokesperson told SAS, but that may change.

“We’re aware of a number of instances where a seafarer’s contract has been extended,” said the spokesperson. “Requests have been considered on a case-by-case basis.” Room for exemptions will remain in place until October.

About 150,000 seafarers were trapped at sea during the Day of the Seafarer as many borders remain locked and airlines grounded.

The AMSA announcement follows calls from the International Maritime Organization, the International Chamber of Shipping, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation on governments to solve a growing humanitarian crisis, facilitate crew changes, and get seafarers home.