Seafarers on ‘front line of this global calamity’

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has issued a reminder that seafarers are essential to the movement of goods by water, even as ships’ crews around the world are being prohibited from going ashore in the global effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

In a marine safety information bulletin issued March 16, the U.S. Coast Guard said crewmembers must stay on board if they or the vessels they are on have been in the following countries within the previous 14 days: China, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Commercial vessels that have been to those countries or have crewmembers who have been to those countries within the previous 14 days and are not sick are permitted to enter the United States and conduct normal operations, “provided that crewmembers remain aboard the vessel except to conduct specific activities directly related to vessel cargo or provisioning operations.”

U.S. regulations also require the master of a ship destined for a U.S. port to report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention any sick crewmembers 15 days prior to arrival.

John Wolfe, chief executive officer of the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), was asked during a conference call Monday about regulations pertaining to the crews of foreign vessels docked at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

“Nothing’s changed,” Wolfe said. “We’re following the guidelines of the federal government and the U.S. Coast Guard, and those protocols have not changed.” 

What has changed is the issuance last week of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) list of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers during the coronavirus crisis. On that list are “maritime transportation workers — port workers, mariners and equipment operators.”

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim stressed that the flow of goods should not be curtailed during the global pandemic.

“The ability for shipping services and seafarers to deliver vital goods, including medical supplies and foodstuffs, will be central to responding to, and eventually overcoming, this pandemic. It is, therefore, crucially important that the flow of commerce by sea should not be unnecessarily disrupted,” he said.

“Defeating the coronavirus must be the first priority, but global trade, in a safe, secure and environmentally friendly manner, must be able to continue too,” he continued. “We must also remember the hundreds of thousands of seafarers on ships. They are, unwittingly, on the front line of this global calamity. Their professionalism ensures that the goods we all need are delivered — safely and with minimal impact on our precious environment.”

The secretary-general urged a “practical and pragmatic approach … to issues like crew changeovers, resupply, repairs, survey and certification and licensing of seafarers.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), which has one of the world’s largest maritime registries with more than 4,700 vessels and nearly 100,000 seafarers serving on its flagged vessels, on Tuesday endorsed the IMO letter and encouraged “countries to recognize and protect seafarers as key transport workers amid restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic.”

RMI said little attention has been paid to the seafarers who keep global shipping moving.

“Many countries have imposed travel bans and restrictions on crew changes in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. The unforeseen consequence of these travel bans is the prevention of the change of ships’ crews either to join a ship or for crews to be relieved and return home to their families,” it said.

RMI contended, “The ability to plan and carry out a crew change is essential to maintain the continuity of shipping and the supply of essentials.”

International Registries Inc. administers the Republic of the Marshall Islands flag and provides registry-related services for the shipping and financial services industries. Its global network of offices includes U.S. locations in Long Beach, California; Washington; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Baltimore/Annapolis; New York City; and Houston.

RMI urged governments around the world “to recognize the contribution of seafarers towards keeping vital supply chains open and to devise plans to allow them to board a designated ship and to be repatriated at the end of their contracts.”