Once again we are outraged and helpless
spectators of a massive oil pollution on the Atlantic seaboard with serious consequences to all
coastal livelihood : fishing, oyster farming, tourism, etc.
Faced with such a wasteful tragedy, the media has blasted off at the shipping industry, and
elected representatives - local, regional or national – justifiably are trying to transform
their indignation into rapid and salutary actions.
Unfortunately the sea imposes a certain humility and the simplistic debates do not resolve the
complex realities, be they technical, economic or financial.
Technically, first of all, it is worth repeating again that an old ship is not necessarily a
dangerous ship if she has been well maintained, and that a double-hull vessel could prove to be
an efficient solution in the specific case of ship running aground or a collision at slow
speed, but there are also some foreseeable concerns given the increased difficulties of
inspection and maintenance. It is therefore by controlling ships in ports and by tightening
classification standards that efforts should be directed in order to eliminate the black sheep
from the seas.
Economically it is not possible to eliminate the total fleet of single-hull tankers before
2010, which still comprises some 2,000 units. Neither the scrapyards nor the shipyards are able
to keep up with such a replacement pace.
In addition it would undermine the tenor of international conventions, which have laboriously
been drawn up and signed under the aegis of the IMO, which it should be remembered is part of
the U.N. – behind which Europe is happy to stand in other matters.
And finally financially, shipping requires heavy investment, which can only be entertained
within a well-defined general framework.
To cut short prematurely the life span of a ship, to remove the ceilings of insured, and to
eliminate the trading in some economic zones would inevitably lead to the insolvency of
What is necessary is neither a lax nor a lenient attitude but rather a strict application of
all the controls, rules and regulations currently in place, which all lead to the improvement
in the quality of the fleet and thus reduce the risk of accidents.
It is worth restating that shipping accounts for over 90 % of the world transport needs and
that it remains the safest and the least polluting means of transport. Over the last twenty
years, shipping pollution in the form of oil spills and waste has been reduced tenfold. Whilst
it is still too much, the improvement should nonetheless be recognised.
Let us not adopt a NIMBY attitude (“not in my back yard”) which is a good illustration of
the paradox between the generous theorising and the egotistical individualism, which permitted
the Spanish to send the ‘Prestige’ out to a raging sea to sink at a depth of 3,500 meters,
thus making uncertain any pumping solution and consequently causing the coastline of three
countries to become polluted for a prolonged period.
In the same vein, Europe, by closing off its ports too quickly to the so-called dangerous ships
is simply displacing them to less developed or less demanding economic areas.
The European Atlantic zone is unfortunately one of the busiest shipping axes and as “zero
risk” does not exist at sea, it is necessary in addition to preventive measures also to put
in place efficient remedial measures that in our opinion can only be European.
We should have the courage to immediately assign along the coastline certain ports or “refuge”
zones where any pollution can be properly contained and pumping carried out. Such a decision
can only be taken at the highest national level, or even European, as it is clearly not
reasonable to place such a responsibility on local or regional representatives.
At the same time indemnities should be fairly and quickly distributed. Why not form a European
fund complementary to FIPOL, which could be financed through a tax on the consumption of oil
products, as it is not in holding the charterer, shipowner or the owner of the cargo liable
beyond all reasonable and insurable limits, that such an amount will be found ? If this were to
be the case, all the serious and financially solvent players would then disappear from shipping
and give their place to irresponsible owners, both in the literal and figurative sense. The ‘Prestige‘
is a case in point.
The ‘Erika’ tragedy has accelerated the rejuvenation of the fleet. Let us hope that the ‘Prestige’
will only help accentuate the movement, and whilst we can all be pleased with this trend it is
not enough in itself.
In France, the new government is to be thanked for its efforts to listen and pay serious
attention to shipping problems, which had been ignored for some time. The tonnage tax, which
already exists in several European countries, has been passed at the end of 2002 and a
think-tank is currently looking at the question of French flag and European short-sea
developments. We hope that this will prove fruitful with the assistance of all concerned
Players in the shipping world are by an overwhelming majority serious, competent, and concerned
to preserve our maritime environment. Rantings and ravings, and sterile theorising do not help
to advance one of the most wondrous of causes, that of the sea.