Solving the problem of misdeclared cargo is ever-more urgent after two major container ship fires have already taken place this year.
In January, a fire started in a container on Hapag-Lloyd’s Yantian Express, while another broke out in a cargo hold on APL Vancouver. This follows an incident in March 2018, when a fire broke out in a cargo hold on board Maersk Honam and led to the deaths of five crew members.
While conclusions are still to be reached on the recent fire incidents, hazardous cargo being misdeclared is a major reason for container ship fires and I think highlights that IMO needs to address this issue.
There are many ways this can be addressed, but I would like to single out an approach Maersk has taken that could be a way for the industry to help reduce incidents of misdeclared hazardous cargo, and the subsequent issue of container fires.
Maersk has implemented a physical container inspection pilot in North America where random containers will be checked by the National Cargo Bureau in four terminals.
Currently, legislation dictates that national governments are responsible for conducting inspections, and for reporting findings to IMO. But this is not working well. According to TT Club, just six governments are believed to be providing reports to IMO on inspection findings. While carriers like Maersk are allowed to carry out spot checks, they are not required to report their findings to IMO.
TT Club is campaigning to allow carriers to report to IMO on the numbers of misdeclared cargo, and I agree. Six governments out of 175 IMO states is just a drop in the ocean. If carriers were added, report numbers would likely be boosted. Carriers have strong reasons for preventing fires, from commercial to ensuring their crew are safe while carrying out operations, so could potentially have an even more pertinent case than governments for carrying out checks and reporting findings.
Spot checks carried out by shipping lines could be stronger than those currently carried out by governments. Their checks generally focus on the containers being exported. But Maersk is carrying out spot checks on both imported and exported containers.
Even if legislation does not change, I hope other carriers follow Maersk’s lead, and that Maersk extends its pilot to other geographical areas. These inspections can help prevent fires breaking out in containers as they identify misdeclared hazardous cargo and allow for corrective action. It also sends a strong message to shippers that they must ensure cargo is declared correctly.
According to TT Club, a major container cargo fire engulfs a ship at sea on average once every 60 days. This stark statistic highlights the urgent need to prevent container fires from happening. More container inspections would be a step in the right direction.