The Business Times
STRAIT TALK

Salvors, shipping's unsung heroes

David Hughes
Published Tue, Aug 9, 2022 · 04:04 PM

FOLLOWING on from last week's column, the good news is that 2 more ships have been authorised to leave Ukraine, with desperately needed grain cargoes. That this agreement is holding at all is remarkable in the circumstance. Clearly, all involved realise it is in their interests to keep this vital trade route flowing.

We are still a long way from peace returning to the Black Sea ports. When, though, that does eventually happen, there could be a lot of clearing up to do. And that will no doubt mean additional work for the shipping industry's specialist salvage sector, the salvors. Until something spectacular is required, such as last year's dislodging of the large container ship Ever Given from its position blocking the Suez Canal, most of the general public are completely unaware of what salvors do.

Because shipping has become much safer, there are fewer salvors than there were decades ago. That, in broad terms, must be a good thing.

However, fewer accidents mean less work available, and so a contracting but still vital pool of salvors.

Last month, the global salvage industry body International Salvage Union (ISU) published its Annual Review of 2021. It says that during the year, ISU's salvage industry statistics showed a “modest recovery” in gross revenues which totalled US$391 million, up from US$301 million in 2020.

ISU president Nicholas Sloane says: “The 2021 ISU statistics show a 26 per cent increase in the income received by our members compared with the previous year. Emergency response services generated US$242 million, split almost equally between LOF (Lloyd's Open Form salvage contract) and other contracts – US$122 million and US$120 million respectively. Wreck removal income has stayed very similar to the previous year and is still down on the historical proportion of our members’ income – some 50 per cent – which wreck removal typically represents.”

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He adds: “Economic conditions are challenging, and activity and income for our industry is volatile year on year. The general trend towards a smaller number of larger and more complex cases enhances that annual variability.”

Of course, it is precisely when some major incident - such as the Ever Given grounding - occurs that salvage expertise and specialist assets are required, and urgently. There are genuine concerns that as the industry contracts, the pool of skilled salvage personnel will become too small.

Salvage specialist Dennis Brand, managing director of Brand Marine Consultants, has been giving the matter some thought.

He asserts that introducing a basic ship salvage module into professional seafarers’ training courses and qualifications could yield results in terms of lowering risks, time and costs of salvage operations.

He points out that currently, training courses and qualifications for professional seafarers do not include any substantive element of salvage: “This leads to the officers of a ship acting only on their standard training, instinct or any past experience they may have, if they are ever required to react and respond to a salvage situation.

“In cases such as a grounding or collision, ship’s crews often do not understand how they may be able to improve the overall scenario or limit the deterioration of the ship’s predicament.”

He believes that by gaining even a basic amount of understanding and taking educated action in the early stages, seafarers themselves could play a vital role in minimising the exposure to the environment, the time required, or the costs of any salvage operation.

Whether there could be enough support from the wider shipping industry to push such training to be incorporated in the International Maritime Organization's International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) remains to be seen.

The STCW is being reviewed as technological advances change what is required of mariners. A module on salvage might not be a bad thing.

Brand takes the case for salvage training a large step further. He says: “Training issues are by no means limited to the ship’s crew. The surprising reality is that there is no specific formal or internationally recognised training or qualification for salvage crew. Granted, many salvage personnel are qualified naval architects, divers, riggers, master mariners, et cetera. However, there is no standard level to attain before adopting the title of salvage master.”

“Some people might find this surprising, but that’s how it is,” he notes.

“We should be clear though, most individuals engaged as salvage masters are well-educated in a related field or highly experienced in salvage, often both. But the fact remains, in situations that can be high-pressure and often dangerous, the person controlling the operation has no formal qualification for the specific role.”

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