Seafarers’ criminalisation fears over sulphur cap

Cruises ship, Azura, as she prepares to depart port. Credit: by James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Seafarers have been warned that they are at the forefront of the impact of the new IMO sulphur cap regulations that came into force in January 2020. The new limit is 0.5% of sulphur content within fuel; however, for designated emission control areas, the 0.10% limit still remains. Unions and insurers have warned there will be legal implications for crew, should violations be found.

Maritime professionals’ union Nautilus International has raised serious concerns around the potential for a wave of seafarer criminalisation. The union said it has been told by members that many seafarers are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of being scapegoated for problems linked to the sulphur cap, through no fault of their own.

Penalties for non-compliance with the new 0.5% limit will include big fines or lengthy jail sentences in some countries, as well as ship detentions. In 2018 France fined the master of the P&O Cruises vessel Azura EUR100,000 (USD111,600) for using fuel containing 0.18% of sulphur – over the limit. The Azura case has set a precedent for criminalising masters over the quality of fuel on their vessels. Nautilus added its members have also highlighted a range of safety and operational concerns, including incidents of power loss when changing fuels, lubrication issues, filter problems, and leaks.

The union’s warning follows its 2019 report in which almost 90% of seafarers surveyed are concerned about criminalisation in the industry. Furthermore, two-thirds of the respondents revealed the news affected the way they felt about working in shipping.

Nautilus professional and technical officer David Appleton said, “While we firmly support the moves to improve the shipping industry’s environmental performance, it is clear that IMO 2020 is imposing a massive new burden on seafarers, both in terms of workload and in their exposure to potentially huge fines and criminal convictions.”

“It is essential that shipping companies do all they can to provide their masters, officers, and crew with the training and resources required to ensure compliance with the new rules,” he stressed, adding, “These are complex requirements, with complex and varied enforcement mechanisms, and our members need to be protected against the threat of legal proceedings arising from inadvertent infringement of the rules.”

Insurers have also raised concerns over the impact of new IMO rules on crew. Stuart Edmonston, loss prevention director at UK P&I Club, said, “From a loss prevention perspective, the most obvious discussion point for 2020 is the impending roll-out of new IMO fuel and emissions regulations, which will bring unique challenges in terms of compliance, enforcement, and managing the new type of fuel on board. There will also be an additional impact on training and maintenance as some vessels are fit with scrubbers.”

He added that beyond low-sulphur fuel, automation is another major issue facing shipping that requires attention. “As shipping slowly embraces automation, we will see new technological advancements in shipboard processes, machineries, and equipment,” said Edmonston. “This will create newer training requirements in 2020 and beyond, as well as crew familiarity issues. As we move towards an increasingly digital and automated future, it is more vital than ever to attract technologically innovative people to the sector, while retaining the current pool of motivated, capable, and knowledgeable people.”

Finally, Edmonston stressed a need for greater cross-industry collaboration and outlined its potential safety benefits for the maritime industry in 2020. “For example, much insight can be gained by sharing and analysing incidents through seminars, [and] office and crew interactions, while safety can greatly improve with increased dialogue between aviation, classification societies, and P&I clubs,” he concluded.