Current issues in Marine Salvage

By John Witte, President, the International Salvage Union

The marine salvge industry has a long and proud tradition of intervening at sea to save life and property and in protecting the marine environment. Indeed, professional salvors are often the only ones with the equipment, experience and capability to prevent catastrophes at sea or to deal with the aftermath – safely and cleanly removing cargo fuel and wrecks. Most decades produce an iconic casualty, from the Torrey Canyon and Amoco Cadiz to the Exxon Valdez and Costa Concordia. All have captured widespread public interest and received significant media coverage.

The job of marine salvors is to prevent or minimize loss for shipowners and their insurers and they invest and train and equip themselves to be ready for all eventualities.

The marine salvage sector is a substantial industry. The trade association for marine salvors is the International Salvage Union (ISU) which has some 60 full members. Some are international firms with operations around the world, some are regional players and other members are focused on one territory or port. Together the ISU members conduct more than 200 operations each year and gross revenues from all sources are more than US$700 million.

The industry is subject to many pressures and issues. In some parts of the world there is an oversupply of salvage capability. There has been some consolidation in the industry and there may yet be more.

In recent years the amount of emergency response work has diminished. It is due to general improvements in ship and operational safety following the introduction of SOLAS and other developments. While the number of operations may have declined, the values of property at risk – both ship and cargo – have increased. At the same time, salvage and wreck removal operations have become more complex and costly.

Nevertheless the possibility of casualties is ever-present. Most casualties are still caused by human factors of one kind or another. Academic research shows that the root cause of more than 75% of marine casualties are human factors. Fatigue; poor communication; lack of technical knowledge; inadequate knowledge of ships’ systems; poor ship handling and poor maintenance can all lead to a casualty. Continued vigilance on training; workplace management; quality of crew and so on must be maintained by all ship’s operators. And that, of course, includes most members of the ISU as vessel operators in their own right.

Traditionally the Lloyd’s Open Form (LOF) has been the most widely used salvage contract and one of the main issues that the ISU is working on is maintaining the status of Lloyd’s Open Form as a mainstay of the emergency response market. Despite its great benefits, LOF is used less today than in the past. There has been much consideration about the reasons why LOF is being used less. It might be to do with improved ship-to-shore communications; the willingness of salvors to work under other terms and a lack of understanding among owners and insurers about the merits of LOF and a misplaced fear that it may be costly.

ISU believes LOF has clear benefits of LOF. It is a clear and simple contract, with standard clauses. It enables rapid intervention in an evolving casualty situation chiefly because there is no need to negotiate terms “upfront” and the contract can be quickly agreed with a verbal agreement that is legally binding. It can be signed at a later stage. Property – hull and cargo – can be quickly saved and re-delivered to owners.

Coming back to to the issue of increasing cost and complexity, research conducted by the International Group of leading P&I Clubs shows that, in wreck removal cases, increasingly stringent requirements of the coastal state authorities may be the key driver of increasing cost.

And of course one of the key issues exercising the minds of salvors, shipowners and insurers is the increasing size of vessels in several classes. Giant crude carriers have been in service for nearly forty years but more recently, cruise liners, LNG carriers, bulkers and, most noticeably, containerships have grown dramatically.

It presents an increasing engineering challenge but also an increased administrative challenge. Notable recent containership casualties such as the MSC Napoli and MSC Rena off the UK and New Zealand respectively were, by modern standards, small boxships and not fully laden. Nevertheless extracting the containers from such casualties, even in benign conditions, is extremely challenging. Salvors, and the supporting industries, are working to develop systems for removing containers as well as developing other equipment such as “heave compensated” crane barges that will allow operations to continue in worse sea conditions.

Beyond the physical challenges lies the logistics challenge. In short, what to do with the discharged containers which may contain pollutants or hazardous material? Substantial space will be needed and which simply might not be available. Add to that the administrative burden of dealing with hundreds or perhaps even thousands of separate cargo interests and chasing salvage security from them. It hardly needs stating that a fully laden boxship with, today, nearly 20,000 teu is a bewildering challenge.

And it can happen. The Emma Maersk (15,000 teu) suffered a flooded engine room in 2013 but was close to shore and quickly assisted. Earlier this year the CSCL Indian Ocean (19,000 teu) grounded in the river Elbe and required the deployment of substantial assets including dredgers and an array of tugs to be refloated.

There is no doubt that salvors will rise to any challenge. They have a track record of doing so. Solutions will be developed and the job will be done. Existing equipment and techniques will be modified to fit the purpose if necessary and wholly new kit can be engineered.

To demonstrate the ingenuity of salvors one can consider numerous difficult cases from the raising of the sunken Russian submarine, Kursk to the more recent Costa Concordia.

In the case of the huge liner grounded on a rocky shoreline on the island of Giglio, Italy, the salvors and their partners engineered a highly complex solution. It was a requirement of the authorities that there should be zero pollution or any lasting damage to the environment.

The methodology required substantial drilling operations to create a safe “hold back” system.  Giant cradles had to be fabricated and inserted under the wreck along with huge quantities of ballast to build up the sea bed. Enormous caissons had to be individually fabricated and welded to the hull. When all was in place, the Costa Concordia was gently and safely righted. She was then stabilised before being refloating and towed away for recycling.

The “zero tolerance” of the authorities to any pollution is welcome. Salvors are expert at preventing pollution either from casualties’ cargo or bunker fuel. Safely removing pollutants is a key requirement of the modern marine salvor. Statistics from the ISU show that each year its members salve ships carrying an average of more than one million tonnes of potential pollutants. Not all of that material was at imminent risk of going into the sea. But it is legitimate to question what might have happened had there been no professional salvor ready to intervene.

I believe marine salvors are to be commended and encouraged in their endeavours. They provide vital services and their investment and capability can help to save huge sums of money for property owners. The industry is not without its difficulties and challenges but salvors remain resilient and innovative and will always be ready to respond.