Australian experience shows cargo ship impact can be managed

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By CHRISTOPH ROHNER

Special to the Driftwood

There is an important lesson from Australia for the Southern Gulf Islands in dealing with the economic and environmental risks of cargo ship anchorages. The grounding of a cargo ship at a popular beach near Newcastle, Australia, was a crisis that triggered major innovations in port efficiency and marine traffic management that could also be applied here. 

“It can take a crisis for an innovative approach to gain traction, but only if lessons are learnt,” says professor Trevor Heaver of the UBC Sauder School of Business in a recent article addressing this topic, published in Lloyd’s List, a world-leading journal for the shipping industry.

Existing conditions are not always satisfactory. He points out that “an increase in the number of ships at anchor at ports is often a sign that problems exist in a maritime supply chain, much like a rash is evidence of measles.” 

These problems at port have become a major issue in the Southern Gulf Islands in recent years. Intrusions of anchoring bulk carriers from port have reached maximum heights this winter and spring, and have caused widespread concerns about negative impacts on the protected environment of this unique group of islands and their residents.

COVID-19 is challenging us all to rethink existing approaches and improve the reliability and safety in supply chains. Heaver describes how another crisis, the grounding of the ship Pasha Bulker at a popular beach close to the port of Newcastle near Sydney in Australia on June 8, 2007, had exactly this effect.

In the fallout of the accident, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau launched an investigation. One of the conclusions of the May 2008 report found “any measure which effectively controls the congestion and reduces the number of ships, waiting at anchor, in the queue also reduces the risks to the ships, the port and the environment.”

Newcastle is a major port with a large volume in bulk exports such as coal and grain, comparable to Vancouver, which also has a high number of visiting ships. In 2007, port congestion and long stays at anchor were common in Newcastle, a situation similar to present conditions at the Port of Vancouver. The new objective in Newcastle was to limit stays at anchor to 48 hours and reduce the demand for anchorages.

How were the objectives achieved? One part of the solution was to include the buyers of exports more into supply chain scheduling. Bulk exports are usually delivered to buyers at port terminals, and that is as far as supply chain management extends. But if the buyers who send ships to pick up goods at terminals are not fully included, any uncertainties in delivery can easily escalate into port congestion, and dozens of waiting ships will idle at anchor in the Gulf Islands.

A number of lessons apply to the operation of supply chains. One lesson of interest is that both producers and buyers needed to shift expectations when entering into contracts several weeks before delivery at port. Expectations for delivery should not be derived from peak capacity, but from realistic average conditions in the supply chain. In our local situation, this would be particularly during cold and wet conditions in winter, and considering other exceptional delays that will always occur.

Without realistic expectations for loading rates at port, too many vessels are scheduled to arrive, and it will be difficult to avoid vessel congestion and overflowing demand for anchorages. The upside of shifting expectations is that the supply chain will become more efficient, and trade become more reliable and less uncertain.

The other important component is information management. In Newcastle, all components of the supply chain needed to cooperate and share critical information. Under the port authority, a newly created Vessel Traffic Information Centre integrated the locations and movements of ships as far into the future as 14 days before arrival. When delays in deliveries are expected, vessels heading towards port are advised to slow down to arrive later. Exact rules safeguard that buyers keep their priority in the lineup for delivery.

What are the lessons for the Port of Vancouver and the Gulf Islands? “Anchorage is an economic and environmental cost, it needs to be managed proactively when possible,” Heaver explains.

The situation is complex and multiple ownership in supply chains and port terminals pose obstacles to sharing information, but a more efficient and more reliable supply chain will benefit both the economy and the environment. Heaver concludes, “It is time to apply the lessons from the Newcastle coal chain to more dry bulk trades.”

Producers should assume responsibility for optimizing logistics and efficiency in the supply chain. They lead the complex negotiations and they ultimately benefit from an efficient flow of exports.

Vessel Arrival Systems (VAS) are better operated by a port authority, which is independent and not a party in export contracts, and can be impartial towards buyers, sellers and different companies operating in the supply chain. Also, because environmental concerns are involved, the government will have a mandate in taking responsibility for the aspect of vessel traffic management.

In addition to Heaver’s conclusions, it would also make sense to have an integrated vessel management centre at port responsible for both reducing traffic and securing maritime safety. The volume and risks of maritime shipping are increasing in our region. A predicted 14 per cent of vessel traffic will be transporting petroleum products in our waters. The potential for accidents should be minimized by making movements of all vessels more efficient. With such measures, anchorages in the Gulf Islands can be phased out, and trips between the Gulf Islands and intersecting with major shipping routes can be eliminated as a possible source for accidents.

We have not seen a major fuel or oil spill in the Gulf Islands, but we are not immune to it. With a letter of April 24, 2020, the Islands Trust Council called for a Transportation Safety Board Investigation into a collision between two bulk carriers that occurred in the area in March, and requested that “the federal government take all measures possible to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the use of the 33 commercial freighter anchorage sites in the Southern Gulf Islands.”

World Oceans Day on June 8 is a reminder to care for the safety of our oceans. The hope is that we can learn from crises, learn the lessons, and turn the challenges into benefits for both the environment and the economy.

The writer has a background in environmental sciences and is a resident of Salt Spring Island.

RELATED: Driftwood editorial from June 3, 2020.

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