Captain of Tanker That Wrecked in Mauritius Is Arrested, Questions Emerge About Panamanian Vessel

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

The Captain of the giant tanker that ran aground off the coast of Mauritius causing a devastating oil spill in pristine marine areas was arrested last week after it emerged in local news reports that a preliminary examination by the police showed the crew was having a party on the night the ship ran off course, according to The New York Times.  Meanwhile, Forbes reports that the front of the vessel, which had broken in two, disappeared. It was last seen being towed away on the night on August 18th — no one involved will comment because of the ongoing investigation. The Japanese-owned ship is “flagged” or registered in Panama due to tax breaks, but the government there exerts little oversight.

Why This Matters: As Nishan Degnarain asks in Forbes, “Why has global shipping or the authorities in Panama not invested in leading-edge maritime control center – an Ocean Mission Control? It would then have become immediately clear to any official that one of the biggest single-hull vessels with over 1 million gallons of heavy engine oil, was being dragged for almost a kilometer across a sharp coral reef system for 12 days.”  There should be a shipping “global mission control” run by governments to ensure safety at sea.

Who Should Be Held Accountable?

There are several possible responsible parties.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an arm of the United Nations that regulates commercial shipping globally to ensure it is safe.  They set up the system that determines how countries register or flags ships, they set safety standards, and determine the rules that should be abided by for shipping traffic and even some environmental safety rules like prohibiting ships from anchoring on coral reefs.  In this case, the IMO is supporting Mauritius, and assisting in the investigation of what happened, but does not seem to be looking at whether its own regulation and oversight somehow were insufficient.  Some blame the government of Mauritius for responding slowly to the incident, but it is difficult to stand up a response operation when you do not see the event coming given what seemed to be a rigorous set of IMO rules on the safety of vessels.

Others are questioning the system of ship flagging in which very little oversight is required or conducted by the flag state, Panama.  As the Forbes piece points out “Panama prides itself on having the largest ship registry in the world, but it is clear they have not invested in the systems, processes or technologies needed to build a safer and cleaner global maritime environment of vessels under their supervision.”  Finally, some say this is just a case of a rogue or bad captain — one bad apple that caused the mess.  Apparently, when it was about 55 nm from Mauritius, the ship veered more than 100 kilometers from a regular shipping lane, data from a maritime analysis firm showed, and that put it on course to hit the island.

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