Places of Refuge for Ships in Distress

Following a spate of high profile cases in recent years, where ships in distress have been refused a place of refuge due to concerns about pollution, ICS has been focused on promoting the need for prompt and proper implementation by coastal states of existing international recommendations on the treatment of stricken vessels.

Places of refuge are a sensitive issue for coastal states, and can have political implications for governments given that the risk of pollution cannot be discounted completely. However, failure to offer a suitable safe haven is likely to prevent a successful salvage intervention, allowing a casualty’s condition to worsen, potentially leading to a major pollution incident (for example if the vessel breaks up) that might otherwise have been prevented. Such pollution could affect a far wider geographical area than would have been the case had a place of refuge been provided.

IMO Guidelines on Places of Refuge for Ships in Need of Assistance recommend that all coastal states establish a Maritime Assistance Service. There have been suggestions that IMO should develop a specific Convention on the subject but, with ICS support, the IMO Legal Committee has concluded that the existing recommendations are adequate. However, ICS has been campaigning for more rigorous implementation of existing IMO Conventions and guidance, with the IMO liability and compensation Conventions providing coastal states the comfort of financial security for pollution damage when considering whether to grant a place of refuge.

In Europe, the EU Vessel Traffic Monitoring Directive embeds the IMO Guidelines and prevents EU Member States from issuing an outright refusal to ships in distress. Throughout 2015, ICS (along with ECSA and the International Group of P&I Clubs) participated actively in an initiative by EU Member States, supported by the European Commission and EMSA, to develop Operational Guidelines on Places of Refuge, based on the requirements of the EU Directive and the IMO Guidelines.

The EU Operational Guidelines were officially launched at a European Parliament event in January 2016, at which ICS participated. The purpose is to ensure better co-ordination and exchange of information among the relevant authorities and industry stakeholders involved should a ship require assistance. The Guidelines build on experience from recent cases that have occurred in EU waters, especially the high profile ‘MSC Flaminia’ incident in 2012. The hope is that decisions on granting a request for a place of refuge will now be reached far more quickly than hitherto.

The EU Guidelines have already played a part in the successful outcome of an incident in February 2016 involving the car carrier ‘Modern Express’. While approaching EU waters, the ship experienced a serious stability issue that led to a request for a place of refuge. Following the rescue of 22 crew members by Spanish search and rescue helicopters, attempts to take the ship under tow were initially unsuccessful. However, once a line was secured the ship was taken and admitted to Bilbao where repairs were carried out, without serious injury, loss or pollution.

In May 2016, with the support of ICS, the European Commission submitted the Operational Guidelines to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee as a model approach that might be adopted by other IMO Member States. Encouragingly, the Singapore and Malacca Strait Co-operative Forum is already investigating the development of an instrument for use in the region. This includes preliminary work to identify places of refuge, with the EU Operational Guidelines being considered as a basis for similar guidelines tailored to the specific situation in the Straits.


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