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World Maritime Day: Setting a tone for whistleblowers

World Maritime Day: Setting a tone for whistleblowers
September 28, 2023

‘MARPOL at 50 – Our commitment goes on’ is the theme for this year’s World Maritime Day. Steven Jones, the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, has this take on crews getting caught in the pollution crosshairs in US waters.

It is great to see MARPOL being celebrated and lauded for World Maritime Day 2023 today. It is truly a vital tool for the industry, and while the seas could of course be cleaner, they would likely be even dirtier if it wasn’t for the rules and regulations which shape the way we manage pollution.

That said, it is not all plain clean sailing. There are some aspects of the application which can all too easily sacrifice seafarers on the altar of convention. Indeed, in US waters and ports, crews caught in pollution crosshairs can find themselves languishing without proper support or assistance awaiting court cases for alleged infringements.

I was recently in discussions about the role of whistleblowing in US cases, and the impact that relationships onboard vessels can make in driving a schism onboard that can all too easily turn to crew on each other, against the owner and into the Whistleblower hotline to the US Coastguard.

This is a big problem from many perspectives, not least financial. So, let’s put some numbers into the calculator. In crunching insurance data for the development of a new MARPOL Detention Costs Insurance (MDCI), I was astonished to see not just the scale of fines being meted out in the US, but the fees being paid to disgruntled seafarers who raise the red flag to authorities.

From 100 cases assessed, fines totalled over $266m. Ranging from the slap on the wrist of $128,000 up to the more eye-watering, bend over of $32m. To catch offenders, the US is very happy to help oil the wheels instead of the water. Indeed, their enticements ranged from $25,000 up to $2m per case. That’s a healthy payday and no mistake.

The analysis also shows that Greek shipowners were involved in over a third (36%) of the cases examined. While US owners were the next most impacted at 9%. Singaporean, Japanese, Norwegian, South Korean, Danish and German owners were all then following, sitting at fairly similar levels of involvement.

Looking at vessel types, dry bulk carriers and tankers dominate the incidents studied. Dry bulk carriers represent 45% of cases, while tankers comprise 30% – together accounting for three-quarters of vessels associated with MARPOL breaches.

With such severe penalties and with a real, folding and green incentive to blow the whistle, it is perhaps a surprise that more owners are not paying attention to relationships onboard. It is after all the crews who fallout that turn state evidence.

Within almost every iteration of the Seafarers Happiness Index, we find that interactions onboard are front and centre in impacting whether people enjoy their time at sea, whether they learn and thrive, or whether they bicker and fight.

Where seafarers get on well the happiness levels are far higher, and where they are lower, then we hear stories of all kinds of tension, stress and problems. It is not hard to appreciate the risks of fallouts spiralling into whistleblowing, and that is what happens time and time again. Over and over, the root cause of conflict is neglect of welfare and unresolved grievances.

With that in mind, you really would think that owners would turn their attention to fixes onboard. To manage relationships, to make life better and to remove the stress trigger points which are likely to serve as a spark into the tinder of tough times.

Some do of course, but for others, they simply see the morale and interactions onboard as something distant and distinct from their business. Now, that may well be sadly true in normal times. However, when vessels enter into US waters, the power shifts demonstrably…in 266m different ways.

When there are fallouts and disagreements, you can bet that if a vessel arrives in the US, then the likelihood of whistleblowing rises almost exponentially. This is hard for an owner to deal with but can be managed ahead of time.

Yes, of course, not committing any pollution, MARPOL or record-keeping offences is a good start. That said, even well-run ships can be found to have problems once the US Coastguard arrives. If a whistle is blown, the likelihood is of fines. It is how it happens.

There is an old proverb, “Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar”, meaning don’t risk the big failure by trying to economise on trivial things, and that would seem to apply here. So, the message for shipowners, operators and managers is clear. Make sure you keep your people happy. Not only is it the right thing to do, but a little investment in morale and good relations can save millions of dollars.